With a broader debate about violence prevention underway across the nation, state lawmakers today introduced nearly a dozen bills aimed at strengthening the public mental health system for children.
Among the proposed legislation that aims to address what mental health advocates describe as weaknesses in the system is a bill filled by state Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, that would require an annual state evaluation of children's mental health services. It also would establish a new peer support counseling program for families.
Lourey, chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Finance Division, said he plans to make mental health funding a priority this session.
"We know the tools that can work to help our children succeed and reach their potential," he said. "In our budget this year, we're going be working very, very hard to make sure that we get our priorities right."
Budget cuts have hit children's mental health programs hard in recent years, and advocates are out to reverse that trend. Sue Abderholden, executive director of the National Alliance On Mental Illness Minnesota, said 21 percent of children age 9 to 17 have a diagnosable mental illness or substance abuse disorder, but only 1 in 5 receives treatment. The problem, she said, is a mental health system that is fragile and underfunded.
"It's enough. It's time," Abderholden said. "We cannot wait any longer to create and fund a mental health system that will provide the right level of treatment and supports at the right time, at the right place."
Other proposed bills would fund mental health grants to schools, pay for more school counselors and provide better training for teachers and health care professionals to recognize mental illness. There are also bills to fund intervention and treatment programs, as well as crisis services. State agencies have not yet estimated the cost for all the spending proposals.
Abderholden stressed that people with mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of violent acts than the perpetrators. But questions about the mental health system are getting a lot attention right now as state and federal lawmakers look for a way to respond to recent mass shootings.
The mental health system should not be blamed for that violence, Abderholden said, but the fallout from it could still help win support for their cause.
"We cannot wait any longer to create and fund a mental health system that will provide the right level of treatment and supports at the right time, at the right place."
"For that tiny percentage of people who may be more likely to be a danger to themselves or others, we need to make sure that we have a mental health system both for kids and adults that really provides the intensity of treatment and services that they need," she said.
Most of the DFL lawmakers who run the House and Senate committees that will take up the mental health measures are embracing the overall proposal, and in some cases are the chief authors of specific bills, as Lourey is.
State Sen. Chuck Wiger, chair of the Senate education committee, also is also embracing the plan. Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, said he thinks a comprehensive system of intervention and support services will make a big difference for students who are mentally ill and for the schools they attend.
"By doing this we will close the achievement gap," Wiger said. "We will increase learning opportunities. We will increase graduation rates. We will decrease violence."
Republicans are also on board with the mental health initiative. State Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, said she thinks there are a lot of good bills in the proposal. But given the constraints of a projected $1.1 billion budget deficit, she raised doubts that all will pass this session.
However, Rosen said she agrees that the circumstances are right for improvements in mental health.
"Unfortunately, we haven't been able to be on the offense with mental health," she said. "We're now on the defense, and I think you will see some major movement going forward. I just hope we do it at a pace that's sensible, and we make sure look at the total picture."
Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, has proposed spending $7.4 million for mental health services in schools. That budget recommendation would double the percentage of schools providing those services.
The bills being introduced on Monday address a number of issues including:
• Create a Family Peer Specialist program to increase the workforce in children's mental health programs.
• Provide in-reach services for children leaving the emergency department, hospital, residential facility or juvenile justice facility. These are services that would follow a child who is returning home.
• Add family psychoeducation, care coordination, clinical consultation and conducting assessments to the MA benefit set.
• Increase funding for children's mental health crisis services.
• Increase funding for respite care.
• Train community health workers on mental illnesses in children.
• Increase funding for school linked mental health services.
• Allow parents under MFIP to be eligible for child care while undergoing mental health treatment.
• Address the problems and barriers between children in day and residential treatment obtaining their education.
• Educate middle and high school students about mental illnesses.
• Increase the safe school levy to pay for school support personnel such as school nurses, counselors, social workers, and psychologists.
• Hold a summit with higher education and children's mental health to develop a plan to increase the number, diversity and quality of mental health professionals and practitioners.
• Fund intensive treatment for young adults experiencing their first psychotic episode.
• Train mental health and health care personnel on early psychosis.
• Extend case management services for youth until age 26.
• Buy out the county's share of room and board for residential treatment.
• Determine the best use of the Children and Adolescent Behavioral Health Hospital.
• Create a certification process through community colleges for Behavioral Health Aides II.
• Conduct a review of children's mental health providers and their experiences with PMAP providers.
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