Children’s mental and behavioral health services are needed more now than possibly ever, according to several testifiers at a joint meeting Tuesday of the House Education Policy Committee and House Education Finance Division.
The issue of kids’ mental health, in tandem with school safety, has dominated education policy and legislative discussions the last few sessions, particularly in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., last February.
Rep. Jim Davnie (DFL-Mpls), the division chair, said it’s important to start looking at the topic early this session, with input from teachers, social workers, counselors and others.
“Almost every conversation I have now with school personnel, school board members and others is on the challenges that they’re finding and the barriers that students are increasingly facing in our schools,” he said. “Mental health is often the No. 1 issue that they raise and it is regardless of geography, economics or demographics.”
Statistical rise in childhood mental illness
Sue Abderholden, executive director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota, presented an informational overview of children’s mental health and how the mental health system currently operates.
She said mental health-related emergency department visits increased from 9,946 in 2007 to 19,368 visits in 2016. For children, ages 0-17, there was a 56 percent increase in emergency visits in Greater Minnesota and a 40 percent increase in the metro area. Additionally, half of all chronic mental illness begins by age 14, and by adulthood, 1 in 5 will be affected.
“More kids than ever are in need of mental health support and our schools are on the front lines. We know this through experience, both by observation as well as measurement,” said Christopher Wall, a child and adolescent psychiatrist with PrairieCare Medical Group. “We see more kids referred to our acute psychiatric services than ever and the referrals are happening for even younger children with conditions that are becoming far more complicated.”
The rise in mental health issues among children is also observed in the schools. Casey Cavanaugh, a first-grade teacher in the St. Paul School District, spoke of the challenges he faces in his classroom daily from children physically destroying property or endangering themselves or other students.
“Students with mental health issues consume my day,” he said. “I have to tend to their needs immediately, thus ignoring all my other students. I stop being a teacher and resort to a survival mode to protect everybody for the good of all students. I once had a student who would throw chairs daily. The situation has been getting worse and worse each year.”
Noting that Cavanaugh has been teaching for more than 25 years, Rep. Tony Jurgens (R-Cottage Grove) asked what he thought could be leading to the increase in mental health issues.
“I don’t really know,” Cavanaugh said. “Because the changes just keep coming year after year after year, and I would like to have more professionals come in and find those things out.”
The general consensus among the eight testifiers is that more resources and support staff are needed to help address the issue.