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Michigan Senate passes bill to help teachers spot student mental illness

kid in classroom
Educators are looking for better tools to identify children who may be suffering from mental health issues and need help. (Shutterstock)

Help could soon be on the way for Michigan teachers who want to identify signs of students’ mental health problems before they grow into crises.

The state Senate passed a bill Wednesday requiring the Michigan Department of Education to develop standards for educators for recognizing mental health needs and referring students for help.

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“It’s so our teachers can say, ‘See that little Johnny is having an issue today. Maybe he needs to go to see the social worker, go to the school counselor, or talk to someone,” said bill sponsor Sylvia Santana, a Detroit Democrat. “It would be great for them to have these tools in their toolbox.”

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The measure now heads to the House, which passed similar legislation in 2018. That bill stalled in the Senate. Santana said the measure has more traction now because the mental health effects of the pandemic are on the forefront of educators’ minds. Indeed, Bridge Michigan documented the lack of resources across Michigan for troubled adolescents in crisis. 

Mental health needs grew globally during the pandemic as families faced illness, death, joblessness, school closures, isolation and financial insecurity. One study suggests that cases of depression in the U.S. tripled during the pandemic, and children’s hospitals are overrun with suicidal patients. With students learning remotely for most of the past school year due to COVID, educators said it was even harder to notice that some of their students were struggling. 

The training in the Senate bill would count toward required training time for teachers, Santana said in an interview off the Senate floor this week. It would be available to all school staff, not just teachers, she said.

The Education Department would coordinate development with the state Department of Health and Human Services, community mental health providers, and state associations representing mental health professionals.

Parents should be more comfortable sending their children to school knowing faculty will be better trained to recognize signs of mental health problems, Santana said.

The Education Department supports the bill, said spokesperson Bill Disessa.

So do teachers.

“It’s particularly important post-pandemic to address the social and emotional needs of students,” said Doug Pratt, director of government affairs for the Michigan Education Association, which represents 120,000 educators. “Ensuring educators have training to identify issues is a good thing.”

However, he said, more mental health support staff also would help, he said.

Lawmakers appear to be trying to help. The $17.1 billion school budget they approved in June includes $240 million for additional psychologists, social workers, counselors and nurses.

The Legislature has taken other recent measures to support mental health in schools, too. A year ago lawmakers approved legislation requiring schools that issue identification cards to print a suicide prevention hotline on them.

“During this time mental health has been a huge issue for our state, but more importantly, it has been an issue for our school children,” particularly those returning to school after learning remotely, Santana said in a floor speech Wednesday.

She said her legislation will better enable schools to provide mental health services that will help ensure student success. Enactment would have a minimal fiscal impact on the state’s budget, according to bill analysts.

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