Twin Cities schools boost mental health programs in aftermath of student deaths
Several Twin Cities schools are re-examining how they address mental health issues, hoping to provide struggling teens with more resources.
Efforts in the Hopkins and Mounds View school districts come in the aftermath of several student suicides and the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Fla., which put new urgency around boosting mental health programs in schools nationwide.
In Arden Hills, hundreds of Mounds View High School students have signed a petition demanding more resources, such as a mental health course. And in the west metro, Hopkins High School and two Hopkins junior highs will open new mental health centers next fall — possibly the first to do so in the metro area.
“There is a demand,” said Jennifer St. Clair, who leads the Hopkins Education Foundation, a nonprofit that raised $93,000 earlier this year to start the new centers. “It’s pivotal for us to address this. Kids need help and kids need to be comfortable asking for help.”
This winter, the state Health Department set a goal of reducing youth suicide in Minnesota. The department also doled out $3.6 million in federal funding to regions across the state over the next five years for training such as providing more consistent follow-up of patients.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 24. In 2016, 111 Minnesotans in that age group died by suicide — a higher rate than the U.S. average for that group, according to the state. And the percentage of Minnesota 11th-graders who said they seriously considered suicide in the past year increased from 9.7 percent in 2013 to 12 percent in 2016, according to the 2016 state Student Survey.
“It is a public health crisis, and we need to treat it as a public health crisis,” said Daniel Reidenberg, executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE), a national nonprofit based in Bloomington. “And we need everyone involved.”
Reidenberg, who often gets called to schools after a suicide, advises districts to give the community time to grieve before considering prevention efforts, and to be careful not to glorify suicides. He agreed that more comprehensive mental health programs are needed.
“It’s often too late when I’ve been called into a school,” he said. “The more proactive schools can be ... the better.”
‘It’s OK to not be OK’
Minnesota policymakers have pitched boosting school-based mental health services by $5 million.
Across the state, counties have expanded mobile crisis teams that respond to mental health calls. The state also added in January a pilot program with a single crisis line number in the seven-county metro to simplify cellphone calls for help (call **CRISIS). And last month, the Crisis Text Line, a national nonprofit, extended suicide prevention and outreach efforts to the entire state, allowing all Minnesotans to get immediate counseling services by sending a text (text “MN” to 741741).
But some students say schools could do more.
After three recent Mounds View High School graduates’ suicides last summer, a junior at the school also died by suicide last month. That spurred sophomores Emily Feng and Sandy Zhang to start a petition demanding more mental health resources.
“Our school is not the only one to deal with this. I just feel really concerned about this overall trend,” Zhang said. “So many suicides in one year — that’s just really tragic for the entire community.”
The students met with administrators to discuss the petition, which has more than 1,000 signatures.
“They’re the adults in the situation; they have the power to make these changes,” Feng said.
District leaders have heard the concerns, Superintendent Chris Lennox said.
“These deaths have left family, friends, classmates, teachers and our parent community shocked, confused and deeply saddened,” Lennox said at a school board meeting last month. “In the wake of these tragedies, school and district administrators are hearing a call from students, parents and alumni for improving the mental health services available to our students. I want you to know that we agree. We recognize that our schools can and should play a significant role in responding to the needs of our community’s children.”
Some students already have been working to reduce the stigma of mental illness.
Last fall, junior Sanjana Dutt organized a student group to bring in an expert to discuss mental health and put up a “compliment wall” of positive messages on Post-its. Last week, she organized a wellness week that included handing out stress balls and positive notes to friends.
“We never openly discussed mental health,” said Dutt, who leads the group H.E.A.R.T, which is modeled after one in Wayzata and stands for Helping Every At Risk Teen. “I don’t want anyone to feel alone.”
Neither does senior Ellie Tsai, who is creating videos of peers sharing their stories of how they’ve confronted anxiety and other mental health issues.
“The stigma is incredible; it’s such a huge obstacle,” Tsai said. “It’s OK to struggle with mental health. It’s OK to not be OK. It’s OK to ask for help.”
More awareness, less stigma
That’s the message Hopkins leaders are trying to send, too.
The new mental health centers are scheduled to open in the fall, providing access to licensed social workers and counselors two days a week after school.
“We care about them as humans first, students second,” Hopkins High School Principal Doug Bullinger said. “It’s not just about their reading and math scores, but how they are doing healthwise.”
He said suicides in the district affect the entire community, and the centers reflect a growing recognition of the importance of mental health. More staff members will get training on how to identify mental health issues. And this week, the school is olding its first mental health awareness week — bringing in therapy dogs, experts and other resources.
“As the community, we need to come together,” St. Clair said. “Everyone is impacted in some way by mental health.”
Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141