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One way to address student mental health? Bring the clinic to school

This story was originally published by Chalkbeat. Sign up for their newsletters at ckbe.at/newsletters.

Many Michigan school administrators say they’ve often served as stand-in public health officials during the pandemic. So it’s no surprise that districts across the state are eager to get some backup from a program that opens clinics in school buildings.

School-based health centers make it convenient for students to leave class and walk down the hall for therapy, a medical checkup, or a dental appointment. While the first centers in Michigan opened decades ago, policymakers have renewed interest in them in the wake of COVID and the ongoing student mental health crisis.

As advocates push for a major funding increase, the outcome of this year’s budget negotiations could shape Michigan’s system for supporting student mental health for years to come — even after federal COVID funds run out. It would mean new health centers in roughly 100 districts that have expressed an interest in opening one but weren’t awarded funds.

Rates of depression and suicide among Michigan youth were already rising when the pandemic hit. State and federal officials are now warning of an emergency in youth mental health. Yet one-third of Michigan students with a mental illness don’t receive treatment, particularly in rural areas.

Many school districts are trying to address that problem by putting more counselors, nurses, and social workers in schools with their share of federal COVID funds, according to a Chalkbeat analysis of spending plans. Adding new school-based health centers would make those efforts more effective, experts say, because the centers are better equipped to assist with the most complex cases, freeing up school staff to handle other needs.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer wants the state to invest an additional $11 million to open new health centers in schools this year. A bipartisan group of lawmakers studying the Oxford shooting agree that more funding is needed, though they haven’t yet said how much. Advocates are pushing for even more: an additional $25 million this year, which would nearly double the state’s current investment in the centers.

Here’s what you need to know about school-based mental health centers.

What is a school-based health center?

The centers are formed under an agreement between local health care providers, such as a hospital system, a school district, and the state. All three parties share the costs.

Unlike a typical school nurse’s office, the centers are recognized by the government as health care providers, which means they can more easily provide referrals for care, and they can bill for services if students have insurance.

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