What is being done to address the youth mental health crisis in North Dakota?

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BISMARCK, North Dakota (KXNET) — Last month, KX News reported on the many Challenges in addressing the youth mental health crisis in North Dakota.

Those challenges include a lack of beds and facilities, mental health professionals, foster homes for youth with mental health issues, and a lack of funding to address all of those barriers.


So what is being done in the state to help our youth and what needs to be done?

Since a 2014 study found North Dakota’s mental health system to be in crisis, many improvements have been made in the form of mental health services, but does the same apply to youth mental health?

The legislature’s interim committee, called the Committee on Acute Psychiatric Treatment Services, set out to assess the need for inpatient psychiatric facilities for youth in the state by hiring a consulting firm to conduct a study.


The results came back several weeks ago, indicating…

“They are not recommending additional beds,” said North Dakota Department of Health Executive Director of Behavioral Health Pamela Sagness.

Many mental health professionals and families whose children struggle with mental health disagree, but do decision makers know this?

Sagness says that while more young people are being treated in the state, many challenges remain, and a big part of the battle is the fact that decision makers are not listening to those who are experiencing the challenges.

“I think people really need to give voice to the problem,” Sagness said. “We go to the hearings and we don’t listen to the families. We don’t listen to local leaders, sometimes we don’t listen to people who aren’t just professionals working in the field, and that gives credibility when you have families coming in and sharing their stories.”

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During the 2021 legislative session, there were discussions surrounding a very specific subset of students called “children in need of services.”

“The state recognized that the current infrastructure is not working,” said Luke Schaefer, executive director of the Mid-Dakota Education Cooperative and the Missouri River Education Cooperative.

So Picus conducted a study to determine what is wrong.

Schaefer says the state took that information and worked over the past year to realign the services offered in the state.

“We also saw in that same legislation an increase for counselors, an increase in requirements for counselors in schools. And that’s a very, very good thing for the kids, for the students,” Schaefer said. “The only thing that’s complicated in our state is that there wasn’t a lot of funding along with that, and there aren’t any counselors out there.”

As Sagness says, investing in people is not the same as investing in roads.

“I think sometimes when people think about infrastructure, they don’t think about human infrastructure, and those are the investments that are difficult,” Sagness said.

A 2018 study found that the majority of state resources go to the highest levels of care.

“Which means that very little funding goes to prevention, early intervention and services that can support families, as we said, in their community or at home,” Sagness explained.

And location is a huge component of healing.

“It’s really hard to take a child and then place them in a facility that is far away from their family,” Sagness said. “We expect and need the participation of the family. And the more barriers we create for families, the more difficult it is.”

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And that’s where North Dakota public schools fit in.

The North Dakota Department of Human Services is working with schools to remedy a situation that has been a crux for some time.

“One thing we’re really looking at is how some of those other providers, people like social workers or therapists who may be looking to get into schools, could serve in some of those capacities as we think about the social, emotional and academic needs of a kid,” Schaefer said.

Schaefer says things are off to a good start, but it’s too early to tell as everything is in the planning stages.

And both Sagness and Schaeffer say that it goes beyond education, that it comes second when there is a health problem, mental or physical.

“For a school to start thinking about how we can address behavioral health, it really has to think about things like food insecurity, housing insecurity, and transportation,” Schaefer explained.

And get to the kids first.

“I’m glad that we’re seeing that legislative change in early childhood,” Sagness said. “We’re starting to see the funding come through because we’re recognizing that the sooner we can touch kids and support them and do early intervention and prevention, the better results we’re going to get.”

There will also soon be a bed management system in place in the state for behavioral health.

All behavioral health providers, including youth providers, will be required to report their census daily.

This summer, there are plans for a mental health registry to help families find services and providers and what they specialize in.

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