Column: Expanding mental health services in our schools


Don Heinzman mug shot
Don Heinzman

The tragic shooting of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut has focused 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’s hoping 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 has a mental health problem. If not treated, these problems could affect their graduation rate, and involvement with crime and drugs.

As you’d 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.

The school is the first place parents turn to when they are having trouble with their kids. But how well is the school prepared?

Good question, because school boards have been cutting counselors to save money. It is often the school counselors who have mental health training. In fact, the Minnesota School Counselors Association says the state has one of the lowest ratios of counselors to students in the nation – one counselor for every 800 students.

Talk to counselors and they’ll 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.

While counselors are trained to identify and work with kids who are depressed, they do not do therapy.

They 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.

If more can be done to treat the kids with mental health issues earlier and often, we won’t have to worry as much about kids becoming the shooters.

Don Heinzman is a columnist for ECM and Sun Publications. Reactions to this and any other commentary printed on these pages are always welcome. Send to: [email protected]