The House Education Finance and Policy Committees held a joint hearing Tuesday on student mental health issues. It was a powerful and informative hearing on the need for more support staff to provide mental health services to schools. Aside from how to adequately fund schools, mental health has become a top issue at the Capitol this session.

The hearing started with a presentation from the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI). Sue Abderholden, the Legislative Director in Minnesota, is a well respected advocate and has been instrumental in getting school linked mental funding into law. She started by giving the committee some startling statistics including:

  • 50 percent of student mental issues begin before age 14
  • 20 percent of students age 14-18 will live with a mental health issue
  • 1 in 5 students had a symptom of depression in the last two weeks
  • Suicide is now the second leading cause of death in people aged 10-34

NAMI  noted that 11th graders who have considered suicide has grown to 12 percent, up from 9.7 percent. Teen suicide is now higher than teen homicide and is becoming a worldwide issue.

NAMI identified poverty, homelessness, sleep deprivation, and screen time as the top factors driving the increases in student mental health needs. Screen time linked to social media was identified as the primary factor driving the increase in these troubling statistics. The amount of bullying kids endure at a constant pace due to social media access has made mental health issues much more prevalent.

Staff Shortage

An area of significant concern is the huge workforce shortage in support staff. NAMI reported that some counties in Minnesota don’t even have a licensed social worker. It was noted that even if funding was provided to cover all mental health cases in Minnesota’s schools, school administrators wouldn’t be able to find people to fill the positions.

NAMI suggested two main areas that can help aid or prevent mental health issues. The increase in screenings has helped to identify issues earlier and help keep children off of medication or be placed in special ed. NAMI stressed the need for school linked mental health grants. These grants help eliminate barriers for families to get help and increase delivery of services to schools.

Key Challenges

The hearing also included a three-person panel and additional expert testimony. Some of the key takeaways included:

  • Social workers serve multiple roles and are lacking in schools.
    Kelly Arrington, a Minneapolis school social worker, testified that the role of social workers vary from district to district. She noted that they are actually dual certified, having a license from PELSB as well as a social worker license. They serve as a resource to families, students and staff and provide training and consultation as well as crisis management. She noted that the current state ratio of 1 social worker to 600 students is unworkable.
  • School nursing staff have become first to diagnose.
    Jamie Holland, Legislative Chair for the School Nurse Organization of Minnesota, said they are often the first person to recognize psychosomatic symptoms in students. They try to rule out any physical cause first and then see if the student is dealing with a mental health issue. She noted that sometimes due to the staff shortage, non-nurses are forced to make diagnosis.
  • School nurse requirement needs revisiting.
    Holland testified that the districts do the best they can but that the state law needs to be changed. Current law requires one licensed school nurse (LSN) per 1,000 students. She explained that there are flaws to this because if a school district has less than 1,000 students they are not required to have a nurse. The other flaw is that only 1 LSN is required no matter how large a district is; if it’s 1.000 students or 20,000 students, they still are only required to have 1 LSN.
  • Data collection has been an issue.
    Holland stated that the major problem aside from the nurse to student ratio is in the area of data collection. They need to be able to collect data on incidents that occur and who may be providing mental health care.
  • Counselors cannot fill gaps.
    Trina Olson, a school counselor for Milaca Public Schools, spoke about how counselors are ofter the first point of contact for a student with mental health issues. She noted that many schools struggle to reach full staffing causing kids to be unable to get an appointment and end up being shuffled from place to place. She testified that state and local communities are stepping up to help but it still isn’t enough and the current ratio of 1 counselor to 750 students is three times what is suggested. Her final point was that while fully funding any program isn’t always the answer – in this case it is.
  • Suspension rates reveal equity issue.
    Justin Killian of Education Minnesota (EDMN) testified that minority groups are often suspended more than white students but there is no proof that they are experience mental health issues at a larger rate.
  • Suspensions are up among preschoolers.
    Jill Russell, a Robbinsdale Public School social worker, shared that the needs of preschooler often go beyond what the schools can offer. Suspensions among preschoolers are up across the United States. A national survey from 2016 found that over 50,000 preschoolers were suspended and they are three times more likely to suspend students.

Potential Solutions

This is a crisis facing all corners of the state. In Minnesota, 80 percent of those asked said mental health was their major concern. One of the most startling survey results was that a majority of the respondents said they would rather have more access to mental health support services than smaller class sizes, Russell said. The Minnesota survey also revealed that teachers felt that the Legislature will not fund the needs of the students.

Russell said not doing anything will just cost more with increased special ed costs, expulsions, absentees and teachers leaving the field.

The testifiers urged the lawmakers to provide school funding aimed at:

  • Hiring more support specialists
  • Reduce class sizes
  • Earlier screenings
  • More training for teachers

Casey Cavanaugh, a first grade teacher at Adams Spanish Immersion School at St. Paul Public Schools, shared that he has seen just about every form of misbehavior there is. He pointed out students with mental health issues absorb the day and the learning experience suffers for all students when there is a threat in the classroom. He said that the situation is getting worse every year and something needs to be done to increase early identification.

Minnesota’s System

The final presenter was Dr. Christopher Wall, a child psychiatrist with PrairieCare. PrairieCare is the largest provider of mental health to kids across the state. They advocate for increased support to identify, manage and connect kids with the services they need.

He said schools want to help but are paralyzed. Chair Jim Davnie asked him to elaborate on that. Dr. Wall explained that the schools want to help but are overwhelmed with the mental health issues that occur in the classroom. He also testified for the need for appropriate resources because the impact of suicides in students has a lasting effect on everyone involved.

He testified that the mental health care system isn’t broken; it isn’t fully built and that every county in Minnesota—with the exception of Olmsted — doesn’t have enough support staff. He stated that kids still fly under the radar and they are often the ones with the greatest need. In his final comments, he noted that 15 percent of students who attempted suicide weren’t even identified with a mental illness.


View video of the hearing

View the presentation slides by clicking here and scrolling down committee list to Education Policy