Hennepin County works to improve access to mental health support at a time when youth needs are growing


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According to the World Health Organization, the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic caused a 25% increase in cases of anxiety and depression worldwide. Last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national emergency on child and adolescent mental health.

“I think there’s been a lot on them socially and then socioeconomically with the epidemic that we’ve had,” said Lauren Bialon, who lives in Elk River and has three children. “We went into an epidemic situation and our children were locked out for nine months and school suddenly stopped. They couldn’t see anyone.”

At the same time, children have unprecedented access to social media. Biallon feels that stress contributes to the ongoing mental health crisis in young people.

She has become an advocate for improving access to mental health support and treatment. Her 14-year-old daughter suffered a mental health crisis last year.

“Growing up I struggled with my own mental health and was diagnosed with depression, ADD,” she said. “Then your child is in trouble and there’s nothing that can prepare you. None of your own life experiences, nothing can prepare you for when your child is in trouble.

She explained that they realized the girl was self-harming and immediately sought help. However, she was still attending middle school, where other students were struggling.

“Unfortunately, she fell into the same state of mind she was in at the time with the girls at school,” Biallon said. “They plan to end their lives together.”

When they learned of those plans, they intervened and their son was able to get more help, including inpatient treatment. An 8th grader will finish her last year of high school online and start 9th grade remotely.

Biallon, however, feels that her daughter’s school district initially did not take the girls’ ideas seriously.

“If there had been a mental health professional taking over from the guidance counselor, maybe things would have been different, red flags would have been raised,” she said. “Looking back at our special case, it all came from the school. This group of girls were together at school, and they were discussing their plans on school property, school equipment.

On Wednesday night, she joined Hennepin County Commissioner Kevin Anderson for a panel on how to improve mental health support for students. There were also leaders from various school districts and law enforcement.

“I have four children, two are in middle school and I see it in my own family when I know the stress the kids go through,” said Commissioner Anderson. “I know families around Hennepin are going through the same thing.”

He added, “My goal is to make sure people are getting help when and where they need it.

By September 2021, Hennepin County has allocated $20 million to invest in mental health services. Nearly $2.2 million is dedicated to expanding school-based mental health services.

“One of the goals we had was to make sure we had some mental health providers in the public schools in Hennepin County for school-based mental health,” said Commissioner Anderson.

According to Hennepin County, the additional funding allowed the county to expand its mental health school program to 24 additional schools. It is now available in all 231 public schools and 100% of districts in the county. The expansion will support an additional 1,000 students each year.

The funding will allow eight mental health providers to partner with the schools to include a full-time mental health professional to provide direct clinical treatment services to students and families at each school, according to the county.

“At this point, we have the capacity to have resources in every public school in Hennepin County,” Commissioner Anderson affirmed.

Osseo Area Schools Superintendent Corey McIntyre has seen first-hand how the pandemic has exacerbated the strain on students.

“I think it’s in every district right now,” he said. “We’ve seen an increase in anxiety, behavioral control and depression. Avoidance can be seen in the audience.”

According to Hennepin County, youth with mental illness are twice as likely to drop out of school.

McIntyre explained that they are relying on school psychologists, nurses and counselors to address the need.

“When there are enough people to provide these services, the demand outstrips the supply,” he said. “A third of our schools are understaffed. We have identified positions and funded them, but we do not have people to fill them.

According to McIntyre, ten locations in the district currently do not have an assigned therapist.

“It is very difficult to find medical professionals these days. There is only a shortage,” he said. “It’s a personnel problem.”

McIntyre joined Commissioners Anderson and Biallon on a panel Wednesday to discuss how to improve mental health support for students.

“How do we solve this together rather than doing it individually?” McIntyre said.

As she advocates for other families, Bialon shares a message of hope and her son’s story of perseverance and strength.

“She’s a good girl, a really good girl,” Bialon said. “Everybody struggles sometimes and one of the struggles we talk about with raising teenagers is that there is no such thing as a broken child, there are only broken systems and we have to figure out which systems are broken and fix them.”

If you’re in trouble and need support, call or text 988 to speak to a disaster advisor.


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