Words from Wiger: Urgent need for student mental health support


MN State Senator Chuck Wiger, District 43

“A child’s mental health is just as important as their physical health and deserves the same quality of support.” — Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge

Mental health issues affect 1 in 5 children. In Minnesota, an estimated 109,000 young people from birth to age 21 need treatment for emotional difficulties.

 Studies have shown that school support personnel, such as counselors, social workers, nurses, psychologists and mental health professionals, co-located in schools can be a successful way to help struggling children. These certified professionals encourage academic achievement; foster relationships between school staff, students and students’ families; reduce student disciplinary problems; and help decrease test anxiety

Although schools are perhaps the best place to provide extra support for these children, our schools are seriously understaffed. A study in 2013-2014 concluded that Minnesota has among the worst counselor-to-student ratios in the nation, at only one counselor for every 743 students. We have more counselors per student than only two other states. 

However, there is a bi-partisan effort in the Capitol to improve the mental health services provided to our state’s children. As a member of the Senate Education Finance Committee, I am authoring a bill that includes a Safe and Secure Schools provision from the governor’s supplemental budget. This initiative would provide all school districts and charter schools with additional funds to spend on items such as the enhancement of school buildings and costs for school counselors, along with grants to increase the number of mental health professionals co-located in schools. 

Counselors in schools help treat behavioral, emotional and interpersonal issues in students, including mental health and developmental delays. With the proper treatment, children struggling with their mental health and children with diagnosed mental illnesses can achieve success in all areas of their lives. 

Early intervention by trained professionals is critical, and Minnesota has been a leader in developing school-linked mental health programs.

 At the recent National School Boards Association conference, Dr. Michael Weber, superintendent of the Port Washington-Saukville School District in the state of Washington, had some practical suggestions for how to help students at the classroom level. Here are some of his suggestions: 

• Listen nonjudgmentally when students talk about their difficulties.

• Show empathy and compassion, not pity.

• Realize that students with mental health issues can be very scared.

• Understand that mental health does not define the student. View the student as an individual who has a mental health disorder.

• Earn students’ trust with compliments, gratitude and listening.

• Promote a predictable, stable, consistent and nurturing environment.

• Train staff members to deal with students’ mental health issues.

 Dr. Weber also had some good suggestions for school districts, such as:

• Establish mental health as one of the school board goals and school district priorities.

• Develop a mental health district and community-wide action group that includes counselors, teachers, support staff, community members, school board members, principals and someone from the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

• Request periodic board updates about your district’s mental health activities because you get what you monitor.

 I am proud to be part of legislation calling for improvements in the area of student mental health. I will continue to fight to ensure that our state’s children are given the tools and the care they need to succeed.

 If you are worried about your child, talk to the school support personnel at your child’s school, the school-linked mental health provider if there is one or your primary care physician or pediatrician. If suicide is a concern, dial ***Crisis. 

Other mental health resource websites that can help people of all ages include:

www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org

www.mn.gov/dhs/people-we-serve/people-with-disabilities/health-care/ 

www.namihelps.org/support/crisis-resources.html

As always, please contact me with questions or suggestions regarding any issue. I encourage you to visit me at the Minnesota Senate Building, room 2219. Let me know if you would like me to stop by your home or apartment. I can be reached by email at sen.chuck.wiger@senate.mn, and by phone at 651-296-6820 or 651-770-0283.

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