BISMARCK, N.D. (KXNET) — Last month, KX News reported on the many challenges 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 challenges and a lack of funds 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 determined North Dakota’s mental health system was in crisis, many improvements have been made in the way of mental health services, but does the same hold true for youth mental health?

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

The results came in several weeks ago, stating…

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

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

Sagness says while more youth are being treated in the state, many challenges remain, and a big part of the battle is the fact that decision-makers are not hearing from those who are experiencing the challenges.

“I think really people need to bring a voice to the problem,” said Sagness. “We go to hearings, and we’re not hearing from families. We’re not hearing from local leaders, we’re not hearing from sometimes people who aren’t just the professionals working in the field, and that brings credibility when you have families who come in and share their stories.”

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 isn’t working,” said Executive Director of Mid-Dakota Education Cooperative and Missouri River Education Cooperative Luke Schaefer.

So a study was conducted by Picus to determine what isn’t working.

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

“We also saw in that same legislation an increase for counselors, a requirement increase for counselors in schools. And that is a very, very good thing for kids, for students,” said Schaefer. “The one thing that’s tricky in our state is there wasn’t a lot of funding that came along with that, and there aren’t 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 determined that a majority of the state’s resources go to the highest levels of care.

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

And location is a big component of healing.

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

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 can some of those other providers, folks like social workers or therapists who may be looking to get into schools, might they serve in some of that capacity as we think about the social and emotional and academic needs of a child,” said Schaefer.

Schaefer says things are starting off well, but it is too early to tell, as everything is in the planning stages.

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

“In order for a school to start thinking about how can we address behavioral health, they really have to think about things like food insecurity and housing insecurity and, and transportation,” Schaefer explained.

And reaching kids sooner.

“I’m glad to hear that we’re seeing that change legislatively in early childhood,” Sagness said. “We’re starting to see funding happen because we’re recognizing that the earlier that we can touch children and support them and do early intervention and prevention, we’re gonna have better outcomes.”

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

All behavioral health providers, including youth providers, will have 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.