Q&A: Sen. Sean Bowie on student mental health in Arizona

Democratic Senator Sean Bowie is championing student mental health in the Arizona Legislature this year, sponsoring two bills aiming to increase student mental health this session — one of which received Gov. Doug Ducey’s signature last week. He is a member of the Senate Finance, Appropriations and Commerce Committees.

The lawmaker from Arizona’s Senate District 18 (including parts of Maricopa County) took time to speak with State of Reform amidst a hectic week at the capitol, as Friday’s deadline to hear bills in committee approaches. In this Q&A, Bowie talks about reducing the stigma around mental health, securing funding for health care initiatives and advocating for a bipartisan budget.

 

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Eli Kirshbaum: How has your experience been so far this session? I understand this week has been incredibly busy — what notable progress do you think the Legislature has made on health policy?

Sen. Sean Bowie: “It’s certainly been an interesting session. Obviously, COVID-19 has taken up a lot of our attention. We’ve got a lot of federal dollars that are coming in from the CARES Act, from the American Rescue Plan, and we’re obviously hoping that some of those dollars are going to go towards health care needs. Folks are obviously struggling, and we want to make sure that we’re providing as much support as we can here at the state level, as far as strengthening our state Medicaid system … It’s a priority for us.

But when it comes to health policy, I’ve been focused on mental health and I’ve gotten one bill signed into law already, which was SB 1097, and then I have another that’s almost ready to go out of the House, SB 1376. So that’s been my focus on the health side. But we’re certainly having discussions about the budget and hoping to expand certain health programs along with all of the other things that we’re doing. It’s definitely a focus and a priority, and my hope is that we can have a bipartisan budget this year and really make some progress on some of these issues.”

EK: You mentioned you’re hoping to secure funding for state health programs. From your position on the Finance and Appropriations Committees, do you have any insight as to how health policy is being prioritized this year?

SB: “In Finance, we haven’t done a lot with health care issues. We’ve mostly been focused on tax issues and insurance issues, the usual things we do in that committee. But as far as health care, and as far as the budget goes, we’ve been focused on ensuring health care subsidies and ensuring we can get more subsidies for working families when it comes to childcare. That’s been a priority for us. Protecting things like KidsCare has been really important too. We would love to see more funding for AHCCCS [the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System], we would love to see more funding for certain stipends that we do for kinship care. For the developmentally disabled, increasing their reimbursement rates so we can help our [providers for] the developmentally disabled. So, things like that. 

We’re really fortunate to have one of the better-run state Medicaid programs in the country, and we want to make sure that that is protected. In times like this, when more and more people are unemployed or struggling, or having to rely on Medicaid, we want to make sure that that program is effective.”

EK: You said you’re hoping that the budget is bipartisan. Have you seen any resistance from the other side of the aisle on funding for priority areas like these?

SB: “Well, the budget is always a bipartisan conversation, and I’ve supported the last three budgets. So I’m one of the Democrats who’s always willing to work with my colleagues on the other side of the aisle if we can find some common ground, and I think this year we have a really unique opportunity. Our budgetary numbers look a lot better now than they did six months ago, and we have some dollars coming in from the federal government, and my hope is that we can make some smart investments for our state going forward — and that’s not just health care, that’s education, that’s infrastructure, that’s so many other things that we do as a state.

So there have been bipartisan conversations already that I’ve had with some of my Republican colleagues, and I certainly hope those continue — that we can complete a budget this year that is focused on the future and focused on making a lot of critical investments, and not just an opportunity to cut taxes and decrease the amount of revenue that we have available to us.”

EK: Can you describe the recently passed SB 1097? What significance will this bill have on the mental health of Arizona students?

SB: “This is a bill that I introduced last year that came very close to getting across the finish line, but got stuck because of COVID, along with many other bills. [This bill] clarifies that, for students in K-12 schools, mental health days count as excused absences. So, currently in statute we have things like a doctor’s appointment, being sick with the flu, a death in the family — all those things are outlined as [counting towards excused absences]. As far as mental health goes, it was never specified that mental health counted for that as well. I think we’re seeking to reduce the stigma around mental health, and let parents and students and counselors know that if a kid is having a bad day, or a kid is being bullied, if a kid just needs to get away and clear their head for a day, that counts as an excused absence.

Right now, each school and each school district kind of have their own policies around how they handle excused absence, as far as what information they request from parents. I’ve talked to some of my schools, and some schools, when a parent calls in, they’ll just say, ‘Okay, fine,’ and mark it down. Other schools will ask, ‘Well, why are they out today? Are they sick? Do they have a doctor’s appointment? What’s the reason?’

So, putting this in statute, I think, is really important because it clarifies that this counts as an excused absence, and it also helps to reduce the stigma around mental health because I think that, unfortunately, there are still some people who would say to someone, ‘You’re not sick, there’s nothing wrong with you — go to school today,’ and a lot of our young people are really struggling and have had a difficult time, especially over the last year, being away from their friends and having to do remote learning, and I think this is an important step to greater address mental health and let everyone know, from parents to students to counselors, and everybody, that if you need to take a day or two to get away, you can do that, and it just counts as an excused absence like having the flu. So treating mental health the same as physical health — that’s what we’re trying to do here.”

EK: How about the other bill you mentioned, SB 1376?

SB: “It passed the Senate 29 to one, and it’s over in the House right now, it just needs the final vote. So I’m hoping it’s going to get voted on soon. That is another mental health bill that has to do with school health curriculums, and it requires the State Board of Education, when they are developing the curriculum standards around health, that mental health be treated just the same as physical health.

There’s a lot of flexibility with the school districts in terms of how they want to implement this. It’s something that I see with some of the schools that I represent, in the classroom, talking to the students about feelings and how to treat other people and know who to talk to if you’re having a bad day. I just think that’s really, critically important, [and] a couple of other states have already passed it into law. So my hope is that we can get it passed here this year and reduce the stigma around mental health, and teach kids about this at a young age so that, when they do get older, they have some experience with it, and they’re perhaps better-equipped to respond to any mental health concerns that they have.”

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.