Sen. Franken puts spotlight on school mental health access

by Howard Lestrud
ECM Political Editor

Minnesota Sen. Al Franken held a media call today (Thursday, Jan. 31) to discuss the Mental Health in Schools Act, which he introduced to expand access to mental health services in schools for kids who need help.

Franken’s legislation authorizes $200 million in grant funding per year over five years, and eligible schools may apply for up to $1 million per grant year, based on the size of their student population.

Franken was joined on the conference call by Minnesota mental health expert Sue Abderholden, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Katie Johnson, a mom from Shoreview, whose young son Cameron’s life has been transformed by in-school counseling.

Mental illness “is a very important issue that finally is getting the attention it needs,” Franken said. After the mass shooting in Connecticut last December, Franken said he reached out to a lot of people, Abderholden being one of the first.

Franken said he did not want to stigmatize the mass shootings in Connecticut, Arizona and elsewhere with mental illness. “The vast majority of those with mental illness are no different than the normal person,” Franken said.

Dealing with mental illness at an early age makes kids happier, more productive and it helps them graduate from high school and go on to college, Franken said.

Franken revealed a statistic that Minnesota is 48th in the country in the ratio of school counselors per student, 780 to 1. He used the Mounds View School District as a shining example of a district that accesses not only counselors but other professionals, including social workers, psychologists and mental health workersin the schools.

With this use of other professionals, the Mounds View district has lowered that ratio to 250 students to one counselor, Franken explained. “This is very inspiring to me and what the message is, early intervention and treatment can be the key for kids to thrive in our society,” Franken said.

“Every kid affected with mental illness deserves this chance. This access reduces symptoms, improves school attendance, improves grades and reduces expulsions and suspensions. What is best for kid and family is best for whole school.”

The Mental Health in Schools Act, Franken said, provides resources for schools to collaborate and to partner with law enforcement and community-based organizations to provide health services and comprehensive training to school staff and community to look out for warning signs.

Abderholden said nationally, 21 percent of those youths 9-17 have mental illness and only 20 percent of that group have received treatment. This affects the child’s ability to do well in school, at work and to be a force in the community, she said. She added that schools are not “really equipped” to provide clinical services children need.

Families face incredible barriers to accessing mental health treatment, Abderholden said, with respect to arranging transportation, seeing a long waiting list and having a mistrust of the system. She said a full circle of school counselors, social workers, psychologists and school nurses is needed.

This bill provides grants to eliminate barriers for mental health treatment, Abderholden said. Privacy of the student is also protected by HIPPA (The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act). This access to mental health services in public schools was first put into effect in 2008 and served through 2011. The program identified 13,000 kids and showed that half had never received services previously.

“I think we really know how to do this and how to bridge the gaps; this bill takes us a long way in getting there,” Abderholden said.

Franken illustrated the value of providing access to mental health treatment for kids by introducing Katie Johnson who told about her young son facing unmanageable issues. She asked for an evaluation of him in first grade because he was internalizing school and “was struggling a great deal,” she said.

Young Cameron Johnson was dealing with autism and ADHD (Attention Deficit/Hyperactive Disorder). He was placed in a school program called Bridges. It was more focused on individual help. His mother said once he was in that setting, his world and her world changed. The program was linked with Ramsey County. Through the program, Katie said it has taken “a lot of love, devotion and time” to get Cameron where he is now.

The special program of help has “opened the door for hope” for Cameron and given him a chance to be successful like any other kid, Katie said. He just recently received an orange belt in Taekwondo.

Franken said the Johnson experience made a difference for Cameron and his family. “This is what happens when you can access mental health providers,” Franken said.

Howard Lestrud is at howard.lestrud@ecm-inc.com.

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