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States, Feds Unveil Strategies Focused on Children's Mental Health Needs

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As the nation continues to react to the Dec. 14 shootings in Newtown, Conn., improving mental health care services and access to those services remains in the spotlight.

Schools, which serve as the front lines for these services for many children, could get some help in providing them. Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota recently filed a bill that would provide $200 million in grant money that schools could use to expand access to mental health care services, my colleagues wrote recently over at the Politics K-12 blog.

The proposal says that schools could apply for $1 million grants that they could also use to partner with community-based mental health organizations and train staff, volunteers, families, and others to recognize the signs of mental illness. Last week, Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-Calif., introduced her own version of the measure in the House, the Mental Health in Schools Act.

Some states and districts are hoping to improve services on their own. In Franken's home state, for example, Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton has a budget proposal that would double annual funding for school-based mental health services and expand them to a third of the state's schools, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported recently. And Colorado is contemplating its own ways to strengthen mental health services.

In a set of national and state-by-state reports about adolescents' mental health, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services notes that as of 2011, 28 percent of all high school students and 36 percent of 9th through 12th grade girls had experienced sadness or hopelessness in the year leading up to the survey, as did 21 percent of boys.

In that same time, 8 percent of high school students had had a "major depressive episode." That means they experienced at least five of the following symptoms nearly every day in the same two-week period, combined with a depressed mood most of the day: a markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all or almost all activities most of the day; significant weight loss when not sick or dieting, or weight gain when not pregnant or growing, or decrease or increase in appetite; insomnia or needing to sleep too much; difficulty with things like keeping arms and hands steady; fatigue or loss of energy; feelings of worthlessness or diminished ability to think or concentrate or indecisiveness; and recurrent thoughts of death or suicide.

Nationwide, 16 percent of students had contemplated suicide in the previous year. At the same time, 93 percent of adolescents ages 12 to 17 had consistently exhibited positive social skills over the previous year, according to their parents.

Rep. Napolitano, who has snagged 45 cosponsors for her proposal, noted in a statement that "we must reduce stigma to ensure the quality of life of our youngsters, our families, our communities, and our returning service members. It is okay to seek help. We must secure and protect the federal funding needed to carry out affordable mental health services and programs for all Americans. Government recognition for the need of mental health services is long overdue."

In that vein, in recognition of children's mental health week in May, the National Federation of Families for Children's Mental Health is also looking to reduce the stigma associated with mental health problems. About 1 in 5 children has a mental health disorder, but nowhere close to that many get treatment. The mental health group is hosting a poster contest, looking for posters that illustrate the no-stigma theme and they're due soon.

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