Elisabeth Seburg joined others supporting the National Alliance on Mental Illness in protesting outside the Senate chambers regarding the state’s proposed cuts to in-school mental health programs. Such services are especially critical in rural areas, where such help is more difficult to find, proponents say.

Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

At-risk aid is at risk

  • Article by: JEREMY OLSON
  • Star Tribune
  • May 3, 2011 - 10:05 PM

Makenna Benson is able to keep it together on most school days, but there are times when her anxiety rises and her temper flares. In those moments -- "episodes," her mother calls them -- the 9-year-old from Redwood Falls, Minn., knows to simply walk out of class to find her trusted confidante, mental health practitioner Jackie Ourada.

It's a system that has worked for everyone: Her classroom isn't disrupted, her mother doesn't have to leave work and Makenna can calm down, discuss ways to avoid future conflicts and then return to class.

"She was always the strong-willed one - the spirited child," said her mother, Kari Benson. "I'd never change that about her, but I need her to learn the skills to know when that [attitude] is appropriate."

It's also a system -- used by school districts throughout Minnesota -- that is in jeopardy this spring because of state budget shortfalls.

The Republican-led Senate has proposed eliminating state grants for school-linked mental health services -- even though they were a linchpin of a major package of mental health reforms created by Gov. Tim Pawlenty in 2007.

Advocates, while acknowledging that cuts must be made to close the state's deficit, say cutting such mental health care will be counterproductive -- leading to more spending on juvenile justice, special education and inpatient psychiatric care.

The Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is conducting protests at the Capitol this week to oppose $40 million in proposed Senate cuts and to highlight data showing the effectiveness of the services.

The suspension rate declined among at-risk students who used these services, for example, and increased for those who didn't, according to a Hennepin County study from 2006 to 2007. State data also show improved social and emotional behavior among students receiving the in-school services.

"You hear people talk about reform," said Sue Abderholden, NAMI's executive director in Minnesota. "This is reform."

Doubts at the Capitol

Sen. David Hann, chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, said the grants were targeted because of questions about their effectiveness and the appropriateness of using schools for mental health screening. The Eden Prairie Republican noted that House lawmakers did not propose the same cuts in their budget, so the money might be saved in House-Senate negotiations.

Some 8,422 students in 63 counties used the services in the previous two school years. Services vary by school from basic skill building to individual and family therapy to medication management.

Makenna has been diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder, marked by persistent defiance and hostility toward authorities, as well as an anxiety disorder for which she takes antidepressants. While she receives therapy outside school, her mother said the in-school support has allowed her daughter to maintain good grades, especially in math and science.

A day-care provider, Benson said she wouldn't be able to care for as many children -- or perhaps stay in business -- if she didn't have the in-school support for her daughter.

Rural worries

Advocates said in-school services are particularly useful in rural Minnesota, where mental health services are sparse. At a NAMI news conference Tuesday, an Aitkin school teacher described how a delusional student was throwing chairs and threatening others until the on-site mental health specialists calmed her down. Otherwise, the nearest practitioners were in Brainerd, 30 miles away, she said.

Woodbury mother Beth Rauker said her 6-year-old son has made steady progress in kindergarten since a counselor started meeting with him weekly and teaching him coping strategies at school and home for his anxiety.

Only about half of the in-school mental health services are covered by public or private insurance, said George Dubie of Greater Minnesota Family Services, which provides mental health care for 17 schools in western Minnesota, including in Redwood Falls.

The state grants pay for uninsured students as well as mental health services that insurance won't cover. Those include skill-building sessions with students and families and meetings with teachers to show them how to manage difficult students.

The fate of the $9.5 million in school grants for 2012 and 2013 remains uncertain. Gov. Mark Dayton didn't include the cuts in his budget. Last week, Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson listed them as one of the administration's 41 "significant concerns" over the Legislature's budget.

"It will take mental health care out of schools, resulting in increased school failure and graduation rates," she wrote. "The grant reductions will shift costs to schools and property taxpayers, as well as impacting hospital emergency rooms and the criminal justice system."

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744

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