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Proposal to increase mental health access in public schools advances

A mental health crisis is brewing in Minnesota and it could worsen.

Only an estimated one-third of high school students feel they can cope with the stress in their lives, public data suggests.

But starting early to identify problems among students would help take the necessary corrective steps to improve their health and well-being, said Rep. Kelly Morrison (DFL-Deephaven).

She sponsors HF3634 that would require mental health screening services in K-12 public schools. It also would provide investments to hire student mental health support staff — school psychologists, school social workers, school counselors, and chemical dependency counselors — to do screenings and would require parents be notified when screenings indicate a potential health condition.

Parents would be given notice before a student participates in mental health screening and could decline the screening.

The bill, which has no Senate companion, was approved 11-7 Wednesday by the House Education Policy Committee and sent to the House Education Finance Committee.

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the crisis by forcing students to stay indoors increasing their anxiety as screen-time took precedence over human interaction, said Christopher Prokosch, a medical student at the University of Minnesota who has worked with young students.

The isolation, anxiety and stress harmed their mental health. Adolescents face unique mental health challenges, and early screenings will help identify and take care of those struggling, Prokosch said.

For many students, school is a place they look for solutions to their problems, said Jin Bang, a senior at Minnetonka High School. She came to learn about mental health issues, such as clinical depression and anxiety, in school and feels schools would be an ideal place to start offering mental health screenings.

She cited a 2020 study that found an estimated 60% of adolescents nationally with major depressive episodes didn’t receive treatment the year before. About 66% of adults did receive treatment. That suggests adolescents’ mental concerns are often overlooked, or identified, if at all, too late to be of much use. The bill would help bring a positive change with early screenings, she said.

Rep. Peggy Scott (R-Andover) expressed concern about the safety of potential student screening data, and suggested parents should have an opt-in option instead of opting out.

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