Catching kids early, before they fall

little girl blowing bubbles

By Marnie Werner, VP, Research

As I work on our research projects, it often seems like all the topics I write about are gloomy and doom-filled. And they are usually. Here at the Center, we tend to write about problems—problems that need fixing—because the only way problems get fixed is if we know about them and understand the breadth and depth of their impacts and their causes. I tend to write about those difficult problems like drugs, the childcare shortage, the workforce shortage in healthcare and long-term care facilities, problems that affect families directly and in strong ways. It can get a bit depressing. 

Like our current report: the workforce shortage in mental healthcare. There’s a shortage of workers in every industry these days for various reasons, but mostly because Baby Boomers are retiring, especially during the pandemic, and there aren’t enough people to replace them. The problem is especially acute in healthcare and in mental healthcare. And of course, it’s even more acute in rural areas, where the sparse population makes everything more complicated and less cost-efficient to deliver. 

For this report, we teamed up with the new Center for Rural Behavioral Health at Minnesota State Mankato, a center that’s almost unique in the nation, to look at whether there are problems in the mental healthcare career pipeline that are specific and could be fixed once we knew where to look. And we did find some. Several, in fact, and we’re hoping the legislature will be able to act on at least some of them to help unclog the workforce pipeline, getting more mental healthcare professionals into rural areas. You can read the report here. 

But that’s for the legislature to figure out. What I wanted to share today is one problem and one solution. The problem is a growing number of school children with mental health problems. According to the most recent MN Department of Education Minnesota Student Survey, 29% of the kids responding said they deal with a long-term mental health issue. That’s a lot. That’s 11 percentage points higher than in 2016. For the teachers and school counselors tasked with identifying those children and their needs, then trying to connect them to help, it’s a daunting task, especially for people who already work long hours under stressful circumstances. 

In the Mankato area, they’re tackling the problem with a new position within the school district: Youth Mental Health Navigator.

The position came about through discussions the Greater Mankato Area United Way had with local community organizations, strategizing on how to improve access for school kids to mental health services. The conversations, plus valuable input from school social workers, led to the development of the Youth Mental Health Navigator program. Its core purpose is to increase timely access to mental health services for kids, in part by taking the burden of making connections off of teachers and counselors and putting it in the hands of someone dedicated solely to that job. The Youth Mental Health Navigator is an employee of Mankato Area Public Schools and is funded by Greater Mankato Area United Way, Mankato Clinic Foundation, and Mayo Clinic Health System.

Patrick Clark is the first person in the role if navigator, serving five Mankato-area elementary schools since last April. His job is to connect students and their families to mental health services and keep them connected. The pilot project has been so successful, the Youth Mental Health Navigator is now an official program of District 77, with aspirations to expand the program to more schools with more navigators in the future.

Why elementary schools instead of middle schools or high schools? It’s preventative, says Patrick. The earlier symptoms of mental illness are identified, the greater the likelihood of success with treatment. Patrick’s intervention reduces what is usually a long wait time these days to get in to see a therapist—one month, two months, three months or more. Patrick, a licensed social worker, takes care of that by building relationships with the providers, being the point of contact for them, monitoring the wait list, following up with providers to see if there is a cancellation that could be filled. He also follows up with families to make sure they go to appointments and keep going.  

“It’s about relationships,” says Patrick, “following up with providers. [Families] fall through the cracks. There’s lots of follow-up.”

For providers, Patrick is a single point of contact within the district, greatly increasing the efficiency of the process. For families, he is the navigator, helping them through the system and, importantly, paperwork.

With the current mental health epidemic and substance abuse seemingly everywhere, it’s nice—and instructive—to hear about something that’s working. Teachers have enough on their plates. But one person, or a group of people, experts, devoted to monitoring and managing the mental health scene in a school or a school district could prove to be an invaluable investment for our kids and our future.