Broken at best: Psychologists say Minnesota students facing mental health crisis

In every district in Minnesota, school psychologists like Miranda Bernier are on the front lines of your child's mental health. Recently, we asked Bernier, school psychologist Damion Smith, and psychologist and researcher Daniel Knewitz to help us pull back the curtain on mental health in our schools.

"When I think about kids in mental health, I think of it as the great problem, the problem that needs to be solved before we can really address anything else," said Smith. "Kids going through mental health crisis are unable to learn."

"I think that it is nothing short of a crisis and needs to be understood as a crisis," said Daniel Knewitz. "We need to take sweeping, intensive action to address this within our schools."

Then we asked them: "What does this mental health crisis look like day-to-day?"

"Students that are struggling are quite literally shouting in school for help, like getting in fights, bringing weapons," said Bernier. "There are shouting at the adults in their lives saying, I need help and they're not getting listened to. And then so they ramp up their behavior."

And then there are those who struggle quietly. They withdraw, fall behind in class, or worse.

"The students who get noticed... The students who are more disruptive are the ones who we are being referred to, to counselors, to psychs," explained Smith. "But those aren't the only students that are having issues. I mean, students are quietly suffering from depression. That's still a situation that's still something that we need to address. Because it's harder to see, it's easier to pass over."

Here's the crisis by the numbers. Every three years, the state gives Minnesota eighth, ninth, and eleventh graders a voluntary survey about mental health. We took a look at the 2022 results released in December. Just over 100,000 students responded on average in a class of 35 students. Ten are struggling with long-term mental health problems. Eight have harmed themselves anywhere from 1 to 20 or more times in the last year. About five have seriously considered suicide in the last year.

Statistically, one and a half will have attempted to take their own life. The data also shows teen girls are suffering disproportionately. On average, nearly one in three said they've harmed themselves in the last year and one in five has attempted suicide in that time.

All told, we're talking about tens of thousands of junior high and high school students who are in desperate need of help.

"It touches just about everyone," said Smith. "Some to a greater degree than others. But mental health, the mental health crisis that we're going through, has touched all of our kids."

So, it's a good thing our schools are among the best in the country, and they are prepared to navigate this mental health crisis. Right?

"Having been an educator who worked in other states prior to coming to Minnesota, I have to share that my experience in Minnesota is that we are uniquely ill-equipped," said Knewitz.

Uniquely ill-equipped. How could that be?

For starters, the ratio of Minnesota public school counselors and psychologists to students is alarming. It is the third worst in the country.

"For school-first counselors," said Knewitz. "The recommended ratio is 1-to-250. The national average is 1-to-424, and the Minnesota ratio is 1-to-650. For school psychologists, the recommended ratio is 1-to-500 and the actual ratio is 1-to-1,127."

"Really long wait lists and not having the resources to give to our students," said Bernier. "Often if we have a student coming in and we want to give them a service, there's usually, you know, 30 or 40 kids before them."

And the few psychologists and counselors who are in schools are drowning in work. That has less to do with students' mental health.

"School psychologists are assigned often to one aspect of their role, which is testing to determine eligibility for special education services," said Knewitz. "So, Minnesota has a great education system as far as testing scores for students who have access to resources, who are already privileged enough to be able to navigate the system successfully. The problem is we also have the greatest disparities in the country because we have so many students who aren't able to access those resources, who aren't able to navigate that system. And our schooling system has not really been designed with a whole lot of thought around what that would mean."

You may be surprised to learn that the overwhelming majority of psychologists' time isn't spent directly on mental health services. It's spent on developing and maintaining learning plans for students with special education needs. And that's because Minnesota has one of the highest special ed eligibility rates in the country. Nearly one in five students qualify for help.

"My ratio personally right now as a school psychologist is 1 to 1,700 junior high students," said Bernier. "And when I was an intern, I had upwards of ten buildings that I was serving. So in one year, I did almost 160 special education evaluations, which is just like, unbelievable. If you think that each one takes about 10 to 15 hours."

"I could do with testing for special education and there's so much more for giving IQ tests, giving achievement testing, any of that," said Smith. 'That was one class that I took, of my three years of in-class study. There are so many more things that we know how to do that we just if we had the numbers, we could do it. And the thing with schools is that. If a student doesn't have health insurance, they don't need it at school. I mean, every kid has access to school. And so that's the greatest place to touch, to touch their needs, because it doesn't cost them anything more. It's right there. The buses will bring them, you know. And so it's. It's the place that we know they're going to be."

"Wraparound services are really powerful for kids because then mental health can even be given in ways that we can teach skills so students can access their education even more or even better," said Bernier.

The solution sounds straightforward: Add counselors and psychologists and meet kids where they're at school. But the reality is that could take years and money. Lots of money.

"So how do we start to work towards solutions at a legislative level?" said Knewitz. "Funding is a word that comes up. I think a lot of people have skepticism when they hear just funding, just throw money at an issue. We're talking about funding specifically for a greater workforce of student support personnel and that's school psychologists, social workers, counselors, and nurses. We need to address the mental and physical health of our students in a much more profound way."