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Franken introduces Mental Health in Schools Act

BEMIDJI – After Katie Johnson’s young son was able to access mental health care, their lives changed.

Cameron, who has autism, ADHD and sensory disorders, can’t be in environments with too many people, Johnson said.

But once he was linked with mental health professionals, obtained an individualized education program, and was placed in a specialized school within the Mounds View school district, he began to flourish, Johnson said. He since has joined taekwondo and has obtained his orange belt.

“Once he was in that school setting, my world changed,” Johnson said in a Thursday morning conference call.

U.S. Sen. Al Franken on Thursday celebrated Cameron’s success as he introduced the Mental Health in Schools Act, which aims to provide grants to schools and mental health centers to expand mental health services for students.

“This is what happens when you can access mental health providers,” Franken said in the call.

Sue Abderholden, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said 21 percent of children aged 9-17 have some type of mental illness.

“But only 20 percent will actually receive treatment,” she said during the call.

Franken’s bill aims to link schools with local mental-health professionals to improve the number of students accessing such services.

Franken, recently named Legislator of the Year by the Minnesota School Psychologists Association, said research proves time again that early detection and treatment is key to help students improve their grades, attendance and overall success in school and life.

“We’re talking about making kids happier,” he said. “We’re talking about making them productive.”

Jim Hess, superintendent of Bemidji Area Schools, said the district and the Minnesota Association of School Administrators – for which he serves as president – supports Franken’s bill.

“This bill would provide funding for public schools across the country to partner with local mental health professionals to establish onsite mental health care services for students,” he said.

In Bemidji, those links already exist, Hess noted, as the school district works with the Beltrami Area Service Collaborative and the Upper Mississippi Mental Health Center.

“Unfortunately, some of that funding is going away, so we will have students who have needs who have nowhere to go,” Hess said. “The Franken bill could help us a lot in providing funding for schools to continue those kinds of services for children.”

The downside to the bill, Hess said, is that it will cultivate a competitive grant process through which large districts, like those in New York City or Los Angeles, will compete against smaller districts like Bemidji or Kelliher, for the same pot of funds.

“We don’t have full-time grant-writing people or services, so we’re going to have to partner up with other people,” Hess said, “try to make the application and proposal as persuasive as we possibly can to compete for those dollars.”