Mental health services vital in public schools

 

Don Heinzman

Don Heinzman

The tragic shooting of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut has focused needed attention and awareness on the need for better mental health services, particularly in the public schools.

Gov. Mark Dayton recognizes this and wants to double the money the state spends to expand access for mentally ill children in a school-linked mental health program.

Sue Abderholder, executive director of National Alliance on Mental Illness, says expanding school-linked mental health programs will dramatically improve the lives of children. She hopes that finally the public and the Minnesota Legislature will do something to identify kids earlier and help them.

U.S. Sen. Al Franken recently said a high priority is making sure potential mental health issues are caught and treated early. School officials say they are seeing more kids with mental health problems than ever before, partly because they are getting better at identifying them. The problems include depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorder, conduct and eating disorders.

The Minnesota Department of Human Services estimates that at any one time, one-in-five children have mental health problems. If not treated, these problems could affect their graduation rate, and involvement with crime and drugs.

As you would expect, there are programs in place to provide mental health services for children. The latest data shows that 42,600 children are receiving publicly-funded services; it’s estimated that 96,000 children in the state need treatment for emotional disturbances.

Schools are the first place parents turn to when they are having trouble with their kids. But how well is the school prepared? It’s a good question, because school boards have been cutting counselors to save money, and it is often school counselors who have mental health training. In fact, the Minnesota School Counselors Association says Minnesota has one of the lowest counselors-to-students ratio in the nation — one counselor for every 800 students.

Talk to counselors and they will tell you they spend from 40 to 50 percent of their time administering tests, doing paper work and scheduling. This leaves little time for dealing with students who have mental health issues. And while counselors are trained to identify and work with kids who are depressed, they do not do therapy.

Counselors turn to the social workers and mental health people in the schools, but that’s a problem because schools in general don’t have enough mental health professionals.

That brings this problem to you. Call your legislator and tell them that better funding for school-linked mental health programs is important to you.

 

Don Heinzman is an columnist and editorial writer with ECM Publishers. Contact him at don.heinzman@ecm-inc.com.

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