Lawmakers hear plea for more mental health resources for schools

By: - February 4, 2022 7:00 am

(Photo: Pexels)

Braden Schmitt said conducting threat assessments of students thinking about harming themselves or others was an “infrequent” part of her job as a school psychologist before the pandemic.

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

“Despite their challenges, the students I am lucky to work with are amazing and resilient,” said Schmitt, who works at Intermediate District 287 in the Twin Cities metro. “But they are desperately in need of more mental health supports in their schools.”

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

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

The state’s most recent mental health survey data is from 2019, but that rate likely rose throughout 2020 and 2021. National studies have found that anxiety, depression and other mental health issues became more prevalent among K-12 students after 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 disagree on how to tackle the problem.

Walz’s supplemental 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 student mental health screenings statewide; and expand capacity for youth inpatient psychiatric treatment. The House DFL hasn’t released specific proposals yet but has pushed for increased funding for student support staff like counselors and psychologists in the past.

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

After struggling with distance 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 recover. But that won’t be enough for others, Sue Abderholden, executive director of the mental health organization NAMI Minnesota, told lawmakers.

“Some of the feelings students are experiencing —  fear, anxiety, sadness — may disappear when COVID spread actually slows down,” Abderholden said. “For others, if you do not intervene, (their symptoms) will worsen, and that could impact them for the rest of their lives.”

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

Pre-pandemic, Minnesota’s student-to-mental-health-staff ratios already exceeded the 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 waitlist for treatment through a state program to provide mental health services at schools pre-COVID, and the list has since ballooned to 800 students, Hirsch said.

Schmitt said the growing need for services and limited resources means she increasingly spends her days helping students in crisis. That means she has less time for her primary job duties, which include conducting behavioral assessments and creating learning plans for students falling behind in class — work aimed at preventing students’ 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. As the paramedics arrived, staff were escorting another student down the hall as the student screamed and tried to hurt the staff, Schmitt said. The paramedics asked her if they needed another ambulance and were shocked when she said no, explaining the situation was “kind of normal” and the student would calm down soon.

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

Ellen Gurrola told the committee that she quit her job as a middle school science teacher last month, partway through her 10th year in the field. Taking on extra work due to staffing shortages, helping students through mental and emotional challenges and managing her own family during a pandemic became too much to handle, Gurrola said.

“By the end of every day, I felt like I was giving it my all and still failed. We all love our students — that’s what caused me to try and stay as long as I could,” she said. “But it’s also emotionally draining, watching them struggle and knowing you don’t have all the resources to help them.”

Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Heather Mueller said decades of research shows a link between student mental health and academic outcomes, and legislative action to improve students’ access to mental health services is overdue. 

“When we know better, we must do better. And we’ve known better for a very long time,” she said. “Our students cannot wait any longer for us to figure this out.”


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Rilyn Eischens
Rilyn Eischens

Rilyn Eischens is a former data reporter for the Minnesota Reformer. Rilyn was born and raised in Minnesota and has worked in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Iowa, Texas and most recently Virginia, where she covered education for The Staunton News Leader. She's an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund data journalism program and the Minnesota Daily. When Rilyn isn't in the newsroom, she likes to read, add to her plant collection and try new recipes.