Group wants more Michigan school health centers to address mental health

An empty school hallway.
A group of education and health leaders is pushing state lawmakers to invest $25 million in 100 additional school-based health centers, largely because of the burgeoning student mental health crisis in Michigan. (Di’Amond Moore / Detroit Free Press)

A group of school leaders and advocates is calling on Michigan to expand its school-based health clinics. 

Amid increasing concerns about mental health because of the pandemic, the School-Community Health Alliance of Michigan wants $25 million in the upcoming fiscal year to establish 100 more school-based health centers. This request is larger than Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s proposal of $11 million for 40 new school-based clinics. 

School-based clinics provide both primary care and mental health care. Clinics can help eliminate transportation barriers to doctor appointments, reduce time that students miss school and increase access to medical services to family members up to age 21, the advocates said. The centers also may help reduce the stigma of seeking mental health help. 

“The philosophy behind these health services [is] to provide those services inside the school where students spend the bulk of their time,” said Jeff Cook, director of community health, schools and clinics at Beaumont Health, which sponsors several school-based centers in western Wayne County.

“Healthy children make better learners.”

Speaking during a virtual media conference Wednesday, advocates said they support Whitmer’s attention to the issue, but students need more help. 

“We are thrilled that there’s additional funding, but it still will not meet the need,” said Natalie Kasiborski, a professor of public health at Michigan State University and special consultant for the Health Department of Northwest Michigan. 

She noted that long waiting lists remain for services.

“It’s difficult to say to parents and to kids, that ‘you have to wait.’ So we know the demand is there, so we’re hopeful there will be additional funding to help continue to meet that demand.”

There are now about 200 school-based or school-linked health centers statewide and about half of Michigan counties have at least one center, according to the group. School-linked centers often serve more than one school in a given area. 

Michigan has more than 500 local school traditional public school districts and about 300 charter schools — and 150 districts are on the waiting list that want to open a school-based center, said Deb Brinson, the alliance’s interim executive director.

“Never in our lifetime have we encountered both as adults and children the level of persistent and ongoing stress that life has generated, but more importantly that a pandemic is brought even forward more glowingly,” Brinson said. 

Cook said the programming makes a big difference, citing a school wellness program in Taylor High School that helped a student who was depressed and self-conscious about not having braces. A therapist was able to work with other providers to get the student free dental services and braces. After about a month, the therapist was able to discharge the student. 

It costs about $225,000 to $250,000 to operate a school-based clinic, Brinson said. This includes a full-time provider such as a physician or nurse practitioner and a full-time therapist. She said the model is also unique because the centers offer services year round to patients, not just during the school year. 

Even if the advocates are able to secure the funding, they acknowledge there will be staffing concerns.

Each school-based clinic is partnered with existing health systems that can provide social workers to students, Brinson said. While sharing staffing works for now, she said in the long term, the state will need to recruit more people into the mental health field.

“The support offered by a doctor, nurse or therapist to an adolescent who’s struggling with trauma that was brought on by the pandemic can be the difference between setting them on track to recover and be successful in the future or allowing their mental health to decline because they have nowhere to turn,” Kasiborski said. 

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