Dayton budget would boost school-based mental health funding

Mark Dayton
Gov. Mark Dayton answers questions about his budget proposal Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013, during a news conference at the Department of Revenue in St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

State lawmakers will begin debate on DFL Gov. Mark Dayton's budget this week.

Among the many proposals: The governor wants to double state funding for mental health programs in schools. The new money would pay for independent mental health professionals to support existing school programs.

Schools cannot do everything for students, and they should not have to, said Sue Abderholden of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. But schools are an ideal place for children to get mental health treatment, she said.

"Families don't have to take off of work for multiple visits," Abderholden said. "They don't have to worry about transportation issues. The child has less time out of school because they just walk down the hall to get the treatment."

The proposal in Dayton's budget tries to capitalize on the convenience of the school setting without placing more responsibility on school staff.

Independent community health providers would apply for grants to create collaborative programs. With parental consent, they would treat students from an office in the school.

The grants would focus on treatment for children who are uninsured or underinsured. Dayton, who wants to spend $2.5 million on the program beginning next year, would increase the funding to nearly $5 million by 2017.

Education advocates say the timing of Dayton's proposal highlights the need for additional mental health care resources for children.

13,900 students using these services annually by 2017
7,200 students will receive mental health services for the first time
840 school sites will be providing mental health services
3,000 students from cultural minority groups will receive services
Source: Minnesota Department of Human Services

Renelle Nelson, who works with the Bloomington-based Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights, said anything that increases mental health care in schools is good, since the funding for such programs has faced cuts in recent years. She said some of the recent cases of school violence have drawn attention to the need for mental health support for students.

"I think the unfortunate things that have been happening this past fall around kids with mental health needs and the tragedies that have occurred elsewhere -- and in our own state -- we have a higher visibility with it, and we really wanted to kind of strike while the iron was hot," Nelson said.

School violence has highlighted the need for mental health programs even though there's not necessarily a connection between mental illness and violence.

Mark Sander, who coordinates mental health programs for Hennepin County and the Minneapolis Public Schools, said: "What we know is the percentage of people with mental illness who are violent is very, very small."

Sander runs a pilot program that shows the approach in Dayton's proposal works. Five Minneapolis schools implemented it in 2005, and it has since expanded to 21 buildings.

For the most recent three years in which data are available, Sander said, clinicians served more than 13,000 children -- half of whom had never been treated before. Many were diagnosed as seriously emotionally disturbed.

Sander said there was one significant challenge at the start of the program: The school-based support staff was "fearful that these outside mental health providers that were coming into the schools were going to take their jobs, were going to take their funding and [do] the work that they should be doing."

But he said the pilot program was meant to be additional support for school staff.

The past president of the Minnesota School Counselors Association, Chris Otto, said the best way forward is to restore funding that would pay for nurses, counselors, social workers and psychologists.

"All of those areas have been so cut back that we're dealing with extremely large numbers of students and needs," Otto said. "And so that infrastructure needs to be in place."

And Otto said that infrastructure needs to be rebuilt before adding another layer of mental health professionals in the public schools.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.