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Michigan school, health leaders push for more school mental health spending

classroom with stressed student
Michigan schools will be getting more money for the 2022-23 school year. The question is how much of that increase will go toward mental health services. (Shutterstock)

POTTERVILLE – Michigan needs to spend more on mental health services for its K-12 students, especially in the wake of the pandemic.

That was the message delivered Tuesday by Michigan’s top school and health officials Tuesday, as they pushed for support of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s proposed $361 million increase in K-12 mental health services.

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“Many of our children had mental health challenges pre-pandemic,” State Superintendent Michael Rice said at a news conference at an Ingham County elementary school. “Student and staff mental health challenges have clearly grown during the pandemic. School mental health funding is critical to address these needs, not sufficient, but certainly necessary.”

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The increase in mental health spending is part of Whitmer’s proposed School Aid Fund Budget for the 2022-2023 fiscal year, a budget that school leaders hope can be finalized in June, before districts’ budget years begin July 1.

While the K-12 budget proposals presented by the Democratic governor and Republican leaders in the House and Senate all boost overall K-12 spending, the proposals vary in priorities, including funding for mental health services.

The governor’s office is proposing a $361 million increase for mental health support. The proposal includes $120 million for hiring school nurses and counselors and $25 million for mental health screenings in schools. 

The Senate version of the School Aid Fund does not have funding for mental health screenings and nurse and counselor hiring. The House School Aid Fund bill would increase the state’s mental health budget by $85.4 million. The House budget includes funds for mental health screenings and hirings of school counselors and psychologists. 

The push to increase mental health support in education comes in the wake of studies in recent years that show that students are dealing with increasing levels of stress and depression. In 2020, the American Psychologists Association declared a mental health emergency among American teens after rising stress levels and suicide rates among teenagers peaked during the pandemic. The APA recommends increased funding for mental health initiatives in schools such as regular mental health screenings and mental health clinics. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found in a 2021 study that 31 percent of high school students in the United States reported experiencing poor mental health and 44 percent of students felt “persistently sad or hopeless” during the pandemic.

“Behavioral health, including mental health, is just as important as our physical health, and access at schools where our kids spend so much of their time is a crucial part of the equation,” Elizabeth Hertel, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said in a statement Tuesday that coordinated with Rice’s news conference. “We have an opportunity right now to do better for our friends, family and communities, but especially for our kids. I’m optimistic about what we can achieve with the recommendations in our budget to increase community- and home-based services, including school-based care.

In the press conference, Rice pushed for adoption of the governor’s office’s proposal to implement comprehensive mental health training programs for teachers and administrators in school districts around the state.

“Our State's Senate and House of Representatives did not fully meet our students' needs in their school aid budgets,” Rice said. “The House did add $100 million to its initial budget near the end of its process that, while appreciated, is not fully adequate. 

“We need to pass a budget that supports children's mental health in schools and districts throughout Michigan, as the governor's budget does.”

The press conference was held at Potterville Elementary School in Ingham County, part of a school district that uses a robust mental health program called  Capturing Kids’ Hearts

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Capturing Kids’ Hearts is a training program for teachers and school administrators that help them strengthen their support skills as well as fostering a healthy learning environment. The program hosts training sessions throughout the year with teachers and administrators to help create a school-wide culture of mental health support and positive learning environments. 

Potterville superintendent Kevin Robydek said the program has been a major success in its first two years, citing declines in office referrals and disciplinary action across the district. Rice said an increase in state funding for mental health services could help grow similar programs around the state.

“This is it, this is the moment,” Rice said. “We need to continue to develop more mental health professionals for supportive students and staff in our schools. We need to continue to develop the knowledge of students and staff around mental health issues. We need to continue to destigmatize and raise up mental health challenges.”

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