Options sought for school-linked mental health care

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To treat more young people suffering from mental illness, advocates are pushing hard this session for one solution that they say is already working: Reaching children and teens at school.

For children with a mental illness, the barriers to care are often numerous, say mental health advocates such as Sue Abderholden, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Even when a family realizes that there’s a problem, lack of insurance, lack of transportation, mistrust of therapists and doctors, and shame can all conspire to keep them from getting the professional help they need.

School-linked mental health services can get around these obstacles, Abderholden said. Since 2007, a state-funded grant program has been connecting mental health care providers with schools, where they offer therapy and a variety of other clinical services. These providers bill insurance when they can, but the grants pay for treatment when children are under- or uninsured, as well as costs such as parent meetings and collaboration with teachers. Gov. Mark Dayton’s budget proposal for 2014-2015 would expand the program.

The grant program is targeted at the segment of the school population with the most serious mental health needs, said Abderholden, who testified Thursday before the House Education Policy Committee along with several other supporters of the program. The grants are not intended to duplicate the work of school nurses and social workers, but to build on it, she said. “We need all of the different professionals, whether it’s school counselors or a psychiatrist.”

Nor do school-linked services replace the need for community-based mental health services, she and others say.

“Schools, as an organization, shouldn’t be diagnosing and treating clinical mental health issues,” Mark Sander, a Hennepin County clinical psychologist, told House members at a meeting earlier this month. Yet schools are a great place to reach children who might otherwise fall through the cracks, said Sander, who coordinates mental health services in Minneapolis Public Schools.

Statewide, the school-linked grant program has 20 grantees connected with about 500 schools, Sander said. In the program’s first three and a half years, it served more than 13,000 students, half of whom had never received mental health services. Of those, half turned out to have a serious emotional disturbance, he said.

Mental illness is common in children, yet most who have a diagnosable condition go unidentified or untreated, Abderholden and other advocates say. Nationwide, about 20 percent of American youth ages 9 to 17 have a diagnosable mental or addictive disorder that causes impairment of some kind, but only 20 percent of mentally ill youth are treated in any given year, according to NAMI.