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Franken introduces student mental health bill

WASHINGTON — Sen. Al Franken used a Wednesday hearing on gun violence to preview a new bill he said would increase students’ access to mental health care at schools around the country.

Franken’s Mental Health in Schools Act would cost $1 billion over five years, and provide schools with up to $1 million in grant money annually to partner with local organizations to provide mental health services to students. He introduced the measure on Thursday.

The bill comes in response to the December shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., as well as other high-profile shootings over the last few years. It seeks to provide counseling to children at an early age, thereby preventing potentially violent behavior before it can manifest itself.

“Early intervention treatment can be the key for kids to thrive as a member of our community,” Franken said in a Thursday conference call with reporters. “Every child in Minnesota affected by mental illness deserves this chance.”

Joining Franken on the call was Sue Abderholden, the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. She said mental illness affects about one-fifth of children between the ages of 9 and 17, but schools are often understaffed and unable to tackle the problem head-on.

Minnesota is 48th in the country when it comes to the ratio of students to mental health counselors at 780-to-1, Franken said.

His bill is modeled after two Minnesota programs. The first was a law enacted by the Minnesota Legislature in 2007, which Abderholden said helped enroll more than 13,000 students in mental health services during its three-year life span. The second is a Mounds View school district program that brings in local mental health experts to work with children who need it. In Mounds View, the student-to-counselor ratio is 280-to-1.

Franken issued the same warning today as he did during Wednesday’s gun violence hearing: Even as lawmakers look to beef up mental health services to help potentially violent individuals like those who perpetrate mass shootings, “I in no way want to stigmatize mental illness because the vast, vast, vast majority of people with mental illness are no more violent than the general population.”

Devin Henry can be reached at dhenry@minnpost.com.

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