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Commentary: Access to mental health care, not more guns, is best response to Newtown tragedy

By Tom Dooher, president, Education Minnesota

President Barack Obama stood at a tearful prayer vigil in Newtown, Conn., on Sunday and asked if we are doing enough to give all our children the chance to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose.

He answered his own question with a simple, “no.”

Educators in Minnesota asked themselves the same question after the vicious attack at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Our students were upset and we were reminded again of how many of them need mental health care, and of our limited ability to provide it.

So many of us answered the president’s question as he did, with our own “no.”  We are not doing enough for the nearly one in 10 school-age children with serious mental health issues, nor for those with developmental delays or addictions. We must do better.

There are now about 780 students for each school counselor in Minnesota, one of the worst ratios in the United States. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250 to 1, but few states hit that mark. The ratio in Connecticut is 520 to 1.

Our counselors are among the first people called after tragedies strike their communities, whether it’s a car crash, a suicide, a natural disaster, or even a school shooting. They reassure students and later watch for unhealthy reactions that could lead to trouble down the road.

Our counselors are also often the first people cut when state funding lags schools’ costs, the federal government skimps on mental health programs or when a local levy fails. After years of tight budgets, there are no counselors left in dozens of Minnesota school districts.

The counselor shortage is part of a broader problem. We also don’t have enough school psychologists. A few months ago at an Iron Range school, I met four remarkable psychologists who served 11,000 students spread out over northeastern Minnesota. They drove from school to school for hours a day.

The more than 1,000 school counselors and school psychologists represented by Education Minnesota are often the first to recognize and respond to the early signs of mental illness in a child, but they are spread too thin.

When those mental health professionals spot symptoms of mental illness, it’s often difficult to find community-based counselors in Minnesota who treat children. In rural areas, students can wait months to see a therapist.

It’s not just a state problem. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports more than 70 percent of children in the United States with a diagnosable mental illness receive inadequate care or no treatment at all.

Those children may have a tough time in life, as anyone with an untreated disease would, and their pain might not be their own. Newspapers are full of stories of someone with an untreated mental illness hurting themselves or others. Systematically improving the mental health infrastructure for our children would ease their burden and may make us all a little safer.

Does this mean that hiring more school counselors, psychologists and community therapists would absolutely prevent a new case of school violence in Minnesota like that in Newtown, Conn.; Chardon, Ohio; Red Lake, Cold Spring or Littleton, Colo.? I doubt it. Assault weapons are too accessible and our pop culture is too violent for any guarantees. Besides, we may never know why these murderers committed their crimes.

However, I believe that Minnesotans can take the steps and make the changes so that the next time a president asks a heartbroken nation if we have done enough to give all our children the chance of a happy life, we can look back and say, “yes, in Minnesota, we did our best.”

Education Minnesota is an affiliate of the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers and AFL-CIO.

Education Minnesota
41 Sherburne Ave.
St. Paul, MN 55103

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