Mental health navigator program coming to more area schools

Aug. 28—MANKATO — What started as a pilot program to connect more Mankato students to behavioral health services is expanding into more schools in a four-county region this academic year.

The Youth Mental Health Navigator program, convened by the Greater Mankato Area United Way, began in 2022 in a handful of Mankato Area Public Schools locations. Navigator Patrick Clark worked within the schools to help elementary students and their families access mental health care.

Grant funds are helping add an additional three navigators to the program, expanding it into 13 total districts in Blue Earth, Nicollet, Le Sueur and Waseca counties.

The expansion is a win for students, families, school staff and providers alike, Clark said.

"It provides a lot of hope to everyone for parents to have someone to walk alongside them at difficult times," he said.

The school-based program for kindergarten through sixth grade came in response to growing mental health needs among students and in recognition of the challenges families face in finding and securing services. Clark described the navigators as a complement to a school's resources, allowing social workers, teachers and counselors to focus on other student needs.

Two navigators will work within Mankato schools, while two more will work in other districts. The United Way worked with the South Central Service Cooperative to hire and fund additional navigators, said Elizabeth Harstad, the United Way's community impact director.

"We wanted to make sure we could make this available to any district in our four-county area," she said.

Part of the funding for the expansion came in the form of grants, including $250,000 over five years from Blue Earth County, $100,000 over five years from the city of Mankato and $50,000 over five years from Waseca County. This funding is on top of those provided through the United Way's annual fundraising campaign and other local charitable organizations.

The Mankato Area Public Schools Board recognized the program at its Aug. 21 meeting. Supt. Paul Peterson said the navigator program's early data showed "It's worth the time and it's worth the investment for our kids and our community."

Harstad cited data showing Clark received 129 referrals over the last year and successfully connected about 100 students to services.

"He provided case management to ensure that there were not persistent barriers that kept students from receiving those services," she said.

United Way CEO Barb Kaus attributed the program's success to its close collaboration with the school. Receiving recognition from board members was an honor, she said.

"They were willing to embrace the pilot program from the beginning, and look where we're at today," she said. "It's expanding."

Referrals to the program can come from school staff or parents. If it comes from school staff, Clark said parents are informed and make the ultimate decision on whether they want help from a navigator.

The vast majority, he added, do want assistance. They'll then meet up to go over what services would be best for the student before putting the family in touch with a provider.

Earlier access to mental health services leads to better outcomes, Clark said. It's a more proactive than reactive approach to the issue.

With the expansion, Kaus said the United Way and its partners see potential in the program being a model for other communities.

"Our region should be very proud to be supporting initiatives that support mental health," she said.

Follow Brian Arola @BrianArola

Follow Brian Arola @BrianArola