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‘A needed service’

WORTHINGTON — Last week, the Minnesota Department of Human Services announced $45.4 million in grants to increase access to mental health services in the state’s schools. Among the agencies that will receive the funds is Southwestern Mental Health Center, to provide services in the Adrian, Brewster, Hills-Beaver Creek, Luverne, Pipestone, Round Lake, Windom and Worthington school districts — 22 schools in all.

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According to Southwestern Mental Health Center Executive Director Scott Johnson, the funds will allow for the continuation of services already in place in most cases and hopefully the opportunity to expand the outreach into the schools.

“It our intention to take advantage of any opportunity to expand,” he said. “It’s a needed service, and every district we are in is clamoring for more help.”

In Worthington, the collaboration with SMHC has been ongoing for a number of years, according to School District 518 Superintendent John Landgaard.

“They’ve been very good to work with, and we’re appreciative of that support,” he said. “We are finding there are more kids with mental health needs for a variety of reasons, whether economic or other, that seem to drive kids’ needs. When the economy was extremely tight, you noticed those things more.”

The grant funds allow SMHC to go directly into the schools to address students’ mental health.

“It’s for students in school who are identified as having emotional disturbance or serious emotional disturbance,” explained Johnson. “The grant funding allows us to serve these students in the school setting, at very little or no cost to the student or their family or the school district. So the funds can be used for education of school staff and parents, but also for direct services to students who are uninsured, or what we’re finding is a vast number of underinsured with a high-deductible health plan that prohibits them from getting their mental health needs addressed.”

Among the circumstances that can affect students’ mental health are abuse, divorce, family illness, death, incarcerated parents and bullying, Johnson listed.

“The list goes on and on,” he said. “There are also those who are physiologically predisposed to having problems: attention deficit, depression, anxiety is very present even among grade school students.”

And when students have such issues on their mind, it hinders their ability to focus on their studies.

“That typically gets in the way of the student being able to learn or be part of the classroom,” Johnson said. “We go into the school and embed ourselves as part of the school staff and provide mental health treatment to students in the school setting.”

Johnson also noted that SMHC is called upon when a mental health emergency is determined.

“We operate a child and adolescent mobile mental health crisis response team — CRT,” he said. “We’ve been doing this project for four years, and it’s becoming more heavily utilized. More than half of the child calls come from schools: ‘We have a student who has an urgent mental health need.’ If we’re already there, the response time is much faster and more integrated with the school.”

How much time SMHC staff is able to spend in the schools is dependent on the funding available.

“We’re only in most of these districts part-time, and frankly most of the larger districts could use full-time help,” Johnson noted.

According to the information released by the Department of Human Services, the $45.4 million investment followed a commitment last session from Gov. Mark Dayton and the Minnesota Legislature to double the capacity for mental health early intervention and treatment services in the schools. Since 2008, the state has appropriated $4.8 million annually for school-linked services. In fiscal year 2014, funding was increased to $7.2 million, and in each of the next four years will be doubled to $9.6 million.

The five-year grant obligation for SMHC is $800,000.

Johnson only sees the need for mental health services in the schools increasing.

“One in five adults will need some sort of professional mental health help at some point during their life,” he said. “The numbers increase among adolescents, to one in four. As many as one out of every four students could benefit from some intervention, believe it or not.

“If you have something going on that interferes with your learning and you don’t complete high school, your potential for earning adequate wages and living above the poverty level plummets,” Johnson stressed. “Your employability is pretty dismal.”

By working together, SMHC and area schools hope to get local students the services they need and keep them on a path to learning.

“Overall and across the state — at any school at this point in time — kids’ mental health needs are at a higher level than they have ever been,” said Landgaard. “With additional funding and support, that’s really good news for what we’re doing.”

Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers can be reached at 376-7327.

Beth Rickers

Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at  

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