Legislators push for mental health funding

Two state bills focus on increasing K-12 mental health resources.

Alma Pronove

Some state senators are looking to increase funding for mental health resources in Minnesota.

Last week, legislators introduced bills that would provide more mental health resources for children in K-12 schools.

Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, is leading the charge. She introduced two bills calling for increased funding for school-linked mental health services and more resources for young adults with mental health issues.

Her bills would allow schools to hire mental health consultants that would work in the schools to better diagnose students.

“These initiatives are about children so that we don’t have to wait until those people are hospitalized or in serious condition,” Sheran said. “We want them to have their illnesses under control before they turn into young adults, like college-aged kids.”

While Sheran’s proposals focus on intervention for young children, others also want to see increased funding mental health resources in higher education.

Steven Hermann, director of the Boynton Mental Health Clinic, said he doesn’t want college students to be overlooked.

“There is no question, both nationally and on campus, that we are seeing a steady increase in students seeking assessment and treatment for mental health problems,” Hermann said.

Boynton spokesman Dave Golden said it’s important to increase mental health resources on college campuses.

About a quarter of University students have been diagnosed with a mental illness in their lifetime, according to a 2010 College Health Survey of the Twin Cities campus by Boynton.

While acknowledging the importance of early intervention, Hermann doesn’t think treatment should stop there.

“There is such a continuum from childhood, especially then from adolescence into the early adult years,” he said. “These are the years when we see the emergence of depression and anxiety.”

In a 2005 study in conjunction with the National Institute of Mental Health, researchers found that half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14 and three-quarters have begun by age 24.

Hermann said there needs to be increased funding for mental health at the college level.

Earlier in the year, on its website, Boynton Health Service said due to an unexpectedly high demand, it would likely be a month or more before a student could get a new appointment for therapy.

“I can’t stress enough that we have taken very seriously the difficulty accessing services at times during the semester,” Hermann said. “We are really dedicated to increasing staff and services so that students aren’t facing significant waitlists to start therapy or see someone for medication evaluation.”

The increased focus on mental health recently is due in part to the national gun debate.

In response to the Virginia Tech shooting, the University created the Behavioral Consultation Team, made of 25 mental health professionals, legal experts and University community members who evaluate situations where students have shown abnormal or threatening behavior.

Sheran said mental illness and gun violence aren’t related.

“Such tragedies should not be thrown at the feet of the mentally ill,” Sheran said. “All sorts of people come out to defend guns, but advocacy for the mentally ill and their families is much harder to come by.”

The legislator also proposed a bill that would extend case management services past the age of 18 for children with severe mental illnesses.

“There is nothing magical about the age 18,” Sheran said. “This would allow a child to request to stay in children’s mental health services until the age of 26. The children’s services are much broader and more supportive than the adult mental health services.”

For now, Sheran’s focused on early intervention for children who have mental illnesses.

“It is very, very helpful for children with an early manifestation of mental illness and their families,” Sheran said. “We are really working towards early recognition and identification.”

Mental health awareness is getting attention on the national level, too.

U.S. Sen. Al Franken, DFL-Minn., introduced the Mental Health in Schools Act of 2013 last month. The bill would provide grants to schools that are working on expanding access to mental health resources.

“Early intervention treatment can be the key for kids to thriving as a member of our community,” Franken said at a press conference in late January. “Every child in Minnesota affected by a mental illness deserves this chance.”

All three of Sheran’s bills were referred to the Senate’s Health, Human Services, and Housing Committee, which she chairs. The bills, along with several other mental health-oriented proposals, will be heard Wednesday.