Mental health services busy in District 191

Mental health counselor Ann Meehan began working with the boy a year and a half ago, after he’d begun second grade at Edward Neill Elementary in Burnsville.

He kicked desks, scared other children and was repeatedly removed from class.

Today, the boy has playmates instead of classmates who fear him, Meehan said.

“It just blew me away how he was able to be so successful every day,” said Meehan, who counseled the boy in consultation with his classroom teacher, his mother and the school’s special education staff.

Meehan, who divides her time between Neill and Rahn elementaries, is one of 10 mental health providers working in Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District 191 through a collaboration with Twin Cities-based Headway Emotional Health Services.

The School Board received a report Jan. 17 on the collaboration, which began in the 2011-12 school year.

Though other districts have mental health collaborations, District 191 is unique in extending services across all its schools, according to Mark McNamer, Headway’s manager of client services.

“To my knowledge, there is not another district that provides this level of service,” said Dawn Willson, the district’s health services director and a strong backer of the program.

Before the collaboration, students with mental health problems usually landed in school health offices, which struggled to make proper referrals, provide transportation and attend to other details, Willson said.

Now, help is immediate, she said.

“In a perfect world, I would love to see a therapist in each building,” she said.

Headway provides five social workers, three professional counselors, a marriage and family therapist and a doctoral psychologist.

During the program’s first year, Headway provided billable mental health services (through family insurance) to 650 students. It provided 434 hours of therapy that weren’t reimbursed, according to Headway.

Headway staffers made 5,300 contacts with students, school personnel or families, led by 2,468 consultations with school staffers.

“We’re getting to the point very quickly where we have a lot of waiting lists in schools,” mainly through word-of-mouth, McNamer said. “So the word is getting somewhere.”

Parent permission is required to work with students under 16, Meehan said. Parents are involved in most cases, though older students occasionally seek help on their own, McNamer said.

Headway does diagnostics for insurance purposes and doesn’t work with patients without a mental health diagnosis, he said.

“These are outside mental health services that are not part of what the school is responsible for,” he said.

Students are referred for services mostly by teachers, said Meehan, who also publicizes her services in school newsletters and speaks at parent nights.

At the elementary level, most of what she deals with are student outbursts, whether caused by depression, anxiety or a behavior disorder, Meehan said.

Mental health problems were the most prevalent, at 75.3 percent, among students it saw last year, according to Headway.

Mental health was followed by family problems (11.4 percent), crises (4.1 percent), chemicals (3.3 percent), homelessness (2 percent), grief (1.5 percent), bullying (1.2 percent) and GLBT issues (0.03 percent).

The number of visits averaged 5.4 per student, according to Headway.

During the first year, each of the 10 elementary schools got a half-time therapist, the three junior highs and the alternative high school shared one therapist, and Burnsville High School got one therapist.

This year, the assignments are more fluid based on demonstrated need. Each therapist has a home base school and is assigned to an extra school that showed “limited need” last year, according to Headway.