Lawmakers hear plea for more mental health resources for schools

Braden Schmitt said performing threat assessments of students thinking of harming themselves or others was an “infrequent” part of his work as a school psychologist before the pandemic.

Now it’s almost a daily occurrence, Schmitt said.

“Despite their challenges, the students I get to work with are amazing and resilient,” said Schmitt, who works at Mid-District 287 in the Twin Cities subway. “But they desperately need more mental health support in their schools.”

Schmitt and several other mental health professionals and educators delivered a clear message Thursday to members of the House Education Finance Committee: Students and staff are experiencing a mental health crisis. They implored lawmakers to increase funding for mental health staff and services in schools, citing labor shortages and deteriorating student wellbeing as major concerns as the pandemic unfolds. prolonged.

Even before the pandemic, about a quarter of Minnesota high school students reported having symptoms of depression, Heather Hirsch, a school climate specialist at the Minnesota Department of Education, told lawmakers.

The most recent data from the state mental health survey is from 2019, but that rate likely increased throughout 2020 and 2021. National studies found that anxiety, depression and other mental health issues became more common among K-12 students after the COVID-19 hit.

Gov. Tim Walz and legislative leaders from both parties have pledged to prioritize student mental health this session, but so far they have disagreed on how to address the issue.

Walz’s additional budget recommendations call for spending more than $100 million over the next three years to hire more school psychologists, nurses, counselors and social workers; implement statewide student mental health screenings; and increase the capacity for psychiatric treatment of hospitalized young people. The House DFL has yet to release specific proposals, but has lobbied for increased funding for student support staff like counselors and psychologists in the past.

Senate Republicans have proposed focusing on improving student literacy and restricting screen time, which they say will improve mental health.

After battling remote learning and social isolation for much of the past two years, experts expect the return to full-time in-person classes and other activities will help some students get well. But that won’t be enough for others, Sue Abderholden, executive director of mental health organization NAMI Minnesota, told lawmakers.

“Some of the feelings students have — fear, anxiety, sadness — may go away when the spread of COVID actually slows down,” Abderholden said. “For others, if you don’t intervene, (their symptoms) will get worse, and it could affect them for the rest of their lives.”

The increased demand for services is compounded by staffing shortages in schools in Minnesota and across the country, stressing school staff and making it harder for students to get help.

Before the pandemic, Minnesota mental health student-to-staff ratios already exceeded national recommendations — for example, there was one school psychologist for every 1,700 students in 2019, compared to the national recommendation of one psychologist for every 500 students.

There were 200 students on the waiting list for treatment under a state program to provide mental health services in schools before COVID, and the list has since grown to 800 students, a Hirsch said.

Schmitt said the growing need for services and limited resources means she increasingly spends her days helping students in crisis. This means she has less time for her main tasks, which include conduct behavioral assessments and create learning plans for students who are late to class – work to keep student struggles from escalating into emergencies.

Schmitt told lawmakers about a recent day when staff had to call an ambulance for a student trying to harm herself. When paramedics arrived, staff were escorting another student down the hall as the student screamed and attempted to injure staff, Schmitt said. The paramedics asked her if they needed another ambulance and were shocked when she said no, explaining that the situation was “pretty normal” and that the student would calm down soon.

“Unfortunately, what has become normal for us in schools is really not very normal,” Schmitt said. “We’ve been stretched too thin for too long, and our own mental health is suffering now.”

Ellen Gurrola told the committee that she quit her job as a college science teacher last month, halfway through her 10th year in the field. Taking on extra work due to understaffing, helping students overcome mental and emotional challenges, and managing his own family during a pandemic has become too much to handle, Gurrola said.

“At the end of each day, I felt like I was giving it my all and failing. We all love our students – that’s what made me try to stay as long as possible,” he said. She said, “But it’s also emotionally draining, watching them struggle and knowing that you don’t have all the resources to help them.”

Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Heather Mueller says decades of research show link between student mental health and academic outcomes, and legislative action to improve student access to health services mental is late.

“When we know better, we must do better. And we know better for a very long time,” she said. “Our students can’t wait any longer for us to find out.”

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