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Michigan's top educator urges legislators to increase funding for school mental health programs

Michael Rice, Michigan Superintendent of Schools
Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio
Michael Rice, Michigan Superintendent of Public Instruction

Educators, parents and students are calling on the Legislature to appropriate more money for school mental health programs.

State School Superintendent Michael Rice and State Health Department Director Elizabeth Hertel took part in a roundtable discussion on the issue Wednesday in Saginaw County.

Luke Premo is entering his senior year at Hemlock High School. He says mental health issues are getting worse among his classmates.

“The problem is apparent whether it's witnessing kids having panic attacks and not knowing where to go. Or students who have had suicidal thoughts not being addressed,” Premo told Rice and Hertel. “It’s hard to look at kids' struggles and not thinking I’m looking at a mirror.”

According to the Associated Press, nationally, school counselors are seeing increased rates of depression, anxiety, panic attacks, eating disorders, fights and thoughts of suicide.

Tamara Tucker is a mother and grandmother, with children in Saginaw schools. She worries about the growing mental health issues she’s seen among school children.

“Those issues spill into family issues, and those family issues spill into the streets,” said Tucker. “And then when those issues spill into the streets, now we have violence.”

School mental health programs have not always been a priority.

Superintendent Rice said there was no money in the School Aid Act budget for those programs four years ago.

“The power of the pandemic is that it really helped to shine a light on the needs of our young people,” said Rice.

According to Rice, the Whitmer administration proposed more than $300 million for children’s mental health programs.

State legislators have proposed a smaller appropriation. The money for children’s mental health (including $30 million to increase the number of school psychologists, school social workers, school counselors, and school nurses) is part of a package that includes funding for school safety (including $50 million to hire more school resource officers).

A conference committee is working on a budget compromise.

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Public since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.