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Minnesota Lawmakers Mull New School Telemental Health Programs

A Minnesota lawmaker is proposing four school-based telemedicine pilot programs to address the growing need for telemental health services for students.

Source: ThinkStock

By Eric Wicklund

- Minnesota lawmakers are considering a bill to launch four telemedicine projects aimed at improving access to mental health services in schools.

HF 4198, introduced in March by State Rep. Peggy Bennett, would set aside an as-yet undecided amount of funding for the four programs, one in Minneapolis or St. Paul, one in the seven-county area around but not in the two cities, and two elsewhere in the state.

“I see addressing student mental health as one way to increase not only educational outcomes but the safety of our students,” she said in a press release. “For many districts in greater Minnesota, it’s difficult for students to access the mental health services they need. Through advances in technology and telemedicine, we can help bridge this gap for students who need mental health support.”  

The grants would cover dedicated space in the schools and the telemedicine technology. Minnesota’s Education Commissioner would also be required to report back to state officials on the effectiveness of the program six months after it is launched.

Minnesota is one of several states seeking to use telehealth and telemedicine to address the growing problem of school-aged students lacking access to mental health services. Experts say there are roughly 15 million children in the US who need psychiatric care, yet only 8,300 practicing child psychiatrists, many clustered in large metropolitan areas.

In Utah, State Rep. Ken Ivory’s bill, HB 308, would set aside almost $600,000 for the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health to create the two-year program. The program would create a telemedicine platform that schools could access to facilitate remote consults between children and child psychiatrists.

Last December, spurred by a state report that indicated roughly half of Georgia’s 159 counties have no licensed child psychologist, the Commission on Children’s Mental Health issued a report with five recommendations to address the lack of child-based mental health services. One recommendation was that the state make more use of telemedicine.

“Kids who have an unmet mental health need, if it continues to get worse, miss significantly more days of school than kids who don’t have those needs,” Erica Fener Sitkoff, executive director of Voices for Georgia’s Children and a commission member, recently told the Gainesville Times. “We know if we don’t intervene, it starts to have a compounding negative impact on them - they get behind and it feeds into stress, anxiety, depression.”

Gov. Nathan Deal has included almost $23 million in his proposed FY 2019 budget for children’s mental health services. Both he and the commission see that money being used, Sitkoff said, “to connect kids to services where they are everyday – and that’s schools.”

In Texas, meanwhile, state officials are shining the spotlight on Texas Tech University Health Science Center’s Telemedicine Wellness, Intervention, Triage and Referral (TWITR) program, launched in 2012 following the Sandy Hook School massacre and now serving 11 school districts in and around Lubbock.

Officials say the program has been used by some 34,000 middle and high school students since its launch, with 10 percent of those students receiving counseling as a result of those visits and roughly 300 being referred for psychiatric care. In addition, 25 students have been taken out of school through the program because they showed a heightened risk of suicidal or homicidal actions.

“The good news with a program like this is, you can find those kids who are just about to blow,” TTUHSC President Tedd Mitchell recently said, not two months after a high school student gunned down 17 classmates and teachers and injured 17 others in Parkland, Fla.

“Whatever your approach is to cutting school violence, this can be a part of it,” he added. “We couldn’t have screened thousands of kids without telemedicine. And you could do the same thing in urban areas, where there are healthcare deserts.”

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