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Education committee considers extending funding for suicide-prevention training

As students increasingly struggle with their mental health, lawmakers are considering ways to ensure educators and school staff have the skills, confidence and willingness to intervene when students show distress.

Sponsored by Rep. Sandra Feist (DFL-New Brighton) HF486, as amended, would appropriate $265,000 in fiscal year 2022 to provide statewide, evidence-based suicide prevention training to teachers and school staff.

The bill was approved 16-1 Wednesday by the House Education Finance Committee; it now heads to the House Health Finance and Policy Committee. There is no Senate companion.

Suicide rates and mental health needs among youth have been on a steady increase over the last several years, and the pandemic and recent civil unrest have only worsened the situation, according to Sue Abderholden, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota.

“We are very concerned about the mental health of our students going into the future as they return to school and after they’ve experienced great trauma because of the pandemic, George Floyd’s death and other incidents,” she said. “We want to make sure teachers have the best training possible to make sure that we keep our students safe.”

The proposal would continue a 2019 initiative authorized by the Legislature that made suicide prevention training available to teachers and school staff across the state. The Health and Education Ddpartments chose to contract with a nationally recognized company called Kognito to provide the training at no cost to participants. 

It was launched in May 2020 and is being used by more than 75 school districts, charter schools, private schools and tribal schools. The response has been positive, Feist said.

“Feedback to date has been very good with teachers and staff ranking it high, with 95% saying that it presented scenarios that are relevant to their experience,” she said. “Teachers and principals felt that it was thorough, easy to use and increased their confidence in supporting students.”

Noting that not all schools or teachers are currently using the program, even though it is free to them and available, Rep. Ron Kresha (R-Little Falls) wanted more assurance that the additional funding would result in expanded use of the training.

“What I would hope is that the next time this comes back to us, that all the schools are using this, and I hope that we don’t use the excuse that because of the pandemic … people are too busy,” he said. “I would think that if mental health is as serious as we’re talking about, this should be a priority.”

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