Mental illness impacts the lives of at least one in four adults and one in 10 children across the United States, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Legislators and school officials are hoping to address mental health issues when they first appear by providing access to key resources within school facilities.
U.S. Sen. Al Franken hosted a roundtable discussion with parents, mental health advocates, school administrators and counselors on improving access to mental health resources in schools on Feb. 20 at Central Middle School in Eden Prairie.
“The biggest issue is access to mental health treatment for kids,” Franken said. “Providing this service in schools not only makes it easier on parents, but it means a lot to teachers and to the whole school. This helps every kid.”
Franken authored the Mental Health in Schools Act to help ensure that schools provide access to critical mental health treatment for kids who need these services. Several provisions similar to Franken’s bill were included in the budget legislation recently passed by Congress. The budget contains $40 million for competitive grants for schools to collaborate with community-based mental health providers and other community organizations to expand access to early intervention and mental health treatment for students.
Eden Prairie Schools partners with the Washburn Center for Children, a children’s mental health care center in Minneapolis, to provide therapy at school facilities throughout the school day. In addition to the district’s own team of special education teachers and school counselors, Washburn Therapist Cindy Markison visits with students at Central Middle School and often follows up with students at Eden Prairie High School. The district also has five therapists working at the six elementary schools.
“One of the great models is the one that you have here in Eden Prairie,” Franken said. “What a difference it has made for the lives of both parents and kids. If a kid has a mental health issue, they can look to counselors and have access to community health services.”
Working with students to provide help with mental health issues at a young age is crucial to diminishing negative impacts on society as an adult, according to school counselor and former police officer Randy Thompson.
“The best place for there to be eyes on mental health is the schools,” Thompson said. “I got that perspective from both positions. If we don’t deal with these problems when they’re young, the community has to deal with it later.”
“Half of adults with mental illnesses had symptoms by age 14,” added Sue Abderholden, the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Minnesota. “If we wait until they’re age 26, we’ve waited too long.”
A new outlook on life
When Kirsten Steckman’s son was diagnosed with Aspberger’s syndrome, she knew it would be a struggle, but didn’t expect a life-or-death situation.
And if it wasn’t for the mental health services offered at Eden Prairie Schools through Washburn, he might not be here today, she shared during the discussion.
“From the first meeting (with Cindy) he dug his heels and wasn’t going to talk, but eventually formed a strong relationship,” Steckman said. “Later, he wanted to take his life. Cindy came over and helped us figure it out.”
After going to day treatment and therapy, her son was back on track. He graduated from Eden Prairie High School, with Cindy in attendance.
“I don’t think he would be here today if it wasn’t for that resource,” Steckman said. “Now he has future dreams.”
Steckman was one of three Eden Prairie parents to share their stories of raising children with mental illnesses and the success of the program available through the school.
Emily Prin has had her own terminal illness to deal with while caring for a son who was diagnosed with ADHD.
“When I was diagnosed with a terminal illness, he was 9 years old and I couldn’t hide what was going on,” Prin said. “I had to deal with that (terminal illness) and working full-time. He imploded.”
Prin referred to the accessibility of mental health resources offered at the school district as “a rock and resource” that provided the means to help her son all the way to high school.
“The school and staff got us through a tough time,” Prin said.
Having a therapist available at school offered a sense of security for JoAnna DeSouza’s son, who has autism.
“When he got to junior high, he became obsessed with being autistic,” DeSouza said. “He hit those awkward years and he was aching to be accepted.”
Cindy’s help and that sense of security helped him get through these issues in addition to thoughts of suicide, according to DeSouza.
Looking to the future
Many school districts across Hennepin County have implemented mental health programs similar to those at Eden Prairie Schools, and the accessibility to mental health services at schools is growing.
Programs like these are funded through Local Collaborative Time Study (LCTS) grants from the Minnesota Department of Human Services.
“We went from having this program in 75 schools to 110 schools,” said Bill Wyss with the Minnesota Department of Human Services Children’s Mental Health Division. “That’s almost half of the schools in Hennepin County. The relationships between the providers and the schools has been phenomenal.”
During the past four years, through participation in the LCTS program, Eden Prairie Schools have generated an average of $330,730 per year. These dollars are added to “the pot” of dollars generated by the other members of the collaborative: Richfield Schools, Bloomington Schools and Bloomington Public Health. The money is then re-distributed to the communities and districts through grants, according to Mary Waters-Cryer, director of Related Services for Eden Prairie Schools.
Other Eden Prairie School District grants funded for 2014 through LCTS include The School Social Worker Project, which identifies students at risk for Mental Health Issues in grades K-1 and provides social-emotional learning skills, and the FamiLink family resource center located in the basement of the Eden Prairie Center.
“With this most recent grant, we are expanding mental health services to Eden Prairie High School and early childhood,” Waters-Cryer said. “So, we will have therapists at all grade levels.”
Through programs like these, schools are able to go beyond traditional education to address mental health issues that so many students struggle with.
“We care about the kids, not just test scores and learning, but the whole self,” said School Counselor Pat Sexton.
Contact Natalie Conrad at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @EPSunCurrent.