25th year of state’s Children’s Mental Health Act sees major expansion

Lucinda Jesson & Glenace Edwall
Minnesota Department of Human Services

As May is celebrated as Mental Health Month this year, Minnesota is marking the 25th anniversary of the Comprehensive Children’s Mental Health Act, one of the earliest and most comprehensive pieces of mental health legislation in the nation.

The 1989 Legislature recognized the unique needs of children with emotional disturbance and their families and emphasized developing children’s mental health clinical services and expertise. The law also envisioned a comprehensive system integrated with the medical, educational and other community sectors that touch the lives of children and their families.

Since then, remarkable progress has been made in building a children’s mental health system of care. Minnesota has distinguished itself as a national leader in supporting mental health services in schools, which allows us to reach young people early, including those who might not otherwise access these services. Whether they live in the Twin Cities or in Greater Minnesota, have health insurance or are uninsured, these programs give children help when they need it and where it is most convenient for them and their family.

Across Minnesota, from Hibbing to Shakopee, we have seen how school-linked mental health services transform students’ lives. A Shakopee ninth grader who was prone to get into trouble better understands how his actions and attitudes can lift or depress his mood. Counseling after her parents split up and her home life fell apart helped a Prior Lake high teenager stay in school and look forward to college. A 15-year-old in Minneapolis is able to talk about trauma, grief and loss just three months after immigrating to the U.S., leaving his parents and 10 siblings behind in Guatemala. Telling his story allowed him to release anxiety and stress so that today he is able to study hard and enjoy free time playing sports with friends.

Last year Governor Mark Dayton and the Legislature acted to double the capacity for school-linked mental health services with $45.4 million in grants over five years. This will help about 35,000 students in more than 800 schools across 82 counties. More than half of the students will receive mental health services for the first time.

School-linked mental health services are one significant way to address the mental health problems that are estimated to affect one in five young people at any given time. In Minnesota, 9 percent of school-age children and 5 percent of pre-school children are estimated to have a serious emotional disturbance — a mental health problem that has become longer lasting and interferes significantly with the child’s functioning at home and in school. These serious emotional disturbances include depression, anxiety disorders related to eating, conduct and attention-deficit.

We know much more work must be done to help children across Minnesota develop and function as fully as possible in all areas of their lives. But promising developments are unfolding. Research, science and technology are improving understanding of children’s mental health as well as improving treatment methods and outcomes. Studies are showing how childhood experiences, trauma and toxic stress can affect children’s mental health as well as how resilient children are when needs are addressed early on. In addition to school-linked mental health services, the Legislature has invested in crisis services and other interventions to meet a variety of diagnoses and functional levels among children and youth. The Affordable Care Act is requiring health insurance to cover mental health and substance abuse treatment on par with other health services, significantly expanding access to treatment for both children and adults with mental health issues. This will promote better coordination and integration of mental health with primary care and other services.

As we continue to work toward realizing the vision of the 1989 Children’s Mental Health Act, it is encouraging that in celebrating both its 25th anniversary and Mental Health Month this May, we can take stock of significant progress and look, optimistically, ahead.

Lucinda Jesson is commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services. Glenace Edwall is director of the Children’s Mental Health and Adult Mental Health divisions at the department.