Continuing conversation on mental health

Smith staff visits Western Mental Health to discuss partnership between providers, schools

Photo by Deb Gau Amy Johnson Korba and Bree Maki, at right, outreach directors for U.S. Sen Tina Smith, spoke with employees at Western Mental Health Center on Tuesday.

MARSHALL — It was a conversation that started earlier this spring. But the topic — how to make sure children in Greater Minnesota get access to mental health care — was worth another look.

Representatives from U.S. Sen. Tina Smith’s office met with area mental health professionals on Tuesday, to learn more about how Western Mental Health Center partners with schools in southwest Minnesota.

“It’s such a great model,” said Bree Maki, southern Minnesota outreach director for Smith. Maki said Smith and her staff wanted to learn more about how to help support community organizations and schools.

Maki and education and business outreach director Amy Johnson Korba toured the Western Mental Health Center location in Marshall, and met with a round table of social workers and mental health care providers who work with area children and youth. Panelists said they worked with kids and teens, both at home and at schools in Lincoln, Lyon, Murray, Redwood and Yellow Medicine counties.

Maki said Smith wanted to know more about Western Mental Health’s collaboration with area schools. Marshall area educators and mental health professionals had talked about some of their partnerships back in May, when Smith visited Marshall to talk about her Mental Health Services for Students Act. The bill would provide $200 million to educational agencies, tribal schools and community-based organizations. The funding would help schools and community organizations to build partnerships to help students get mental health services at school, and to train teachers, families and community members to recognize when a student is having a mental health crisis.

At Tuesday’s round table discussion, Kate Fitzkappes said getting the opportunity to provide in-school services was “just so exciting.” Having mental health workers in schools makes it easier for kids to get the counseling or treatment they need, and they’re less likely to miss appointments.

But one of the biggest parts of providing mental health services at schools is building relationships with teachers and administrators.

“That work is always ongoing,” Fitzkappes said.

Discussion panelists said different schools vary on how closely they work with mental health care providers. When mental health support is well integrated into the school and teachers are on board with it, there are a lot more opportunities to meet with students, and even to teach important skills for coping with emotions. At the same time, they also said it’s not always easy to balance students’ mental health needs with schools’ need to meet classroom standards.

The discussion Tuesday covered a lot more mental health care needs, like the need to be proactive in the early stages of mental illness, and the need for better education and training on the topic. It’s not easy to get training for mental health professionals in rural areas either, panelists said.

“We need training, and we need people willing to come in,” they said.

Maintaining adequate funding for mental health care is another concern, said Western Mental Health Center Executive Director Sarah Ackerman.