After reporting on the suicides of four young men within two years, including three who were Eden Prairie High School students, and learning that suicidal ideation in young women was rapidly increasing, Eden Prairie Local News (EPLN) began working on Silent Struggles in April 2023. EPLN presents an eight-part series on the critical issues surrounding mental health and suicidal ideation through the eyes of survivors, and provides resources available for families, friends, and those who serve our young people in Eden Prairie. Follow our weekly reports at eplocalnews.org. This is Part 4.
Editor’s note: To respect the privacy of students, families, staff, and teachers who shared their stories and insights for this article, some names have been changed or quotes have been attributed anonymously, where requested. An asterisk (*) will be placed by a changed name the first time it is listed.
On any given school morning from September to June, students across Eden Prairie pour from buses and cars, hop off bikes and scooters, or walk into school.
Eden Prairie Schools‘ more than 9,000 students in grades K-12 will spend roughly seven hours in their respective buildings. Many students will be there before and after school for activities, sports, academic help, or before- and after-school care.
Given how much time kids spend at school, and amid an uptick in mental health concerns for the district’s students post-pandemic, EP Schools is increasingly focusing on providing in-school access to social-emotional supports and resources.
EP Schools Superintendent Josh Swanson said that, over the past several years, the district has committed significant funding for programs and services that directly or indirectly support mental health and wellness, as part of its mission to support the whole child. “It’s been part of our work for a long time,” he said.
Swanson said that although EP Schools is not a mental health provider, it wants to expand and hone its resources to serve all kids, as well as those with more urgent or severe needs.
Studies show this aligns with what students want, too. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), studies show that two out of three students ages 12 to 17 agree that schools should talk about mental health, and help them learn where and how to seek treatment. They also said they trust the information they receive at school, and are open to learning more.
New strategic plan increases emphasis on well-being
EP Schools released its 2023-28 Strategic Plan in July 2023. It was developed with input from the community, as well as students and staff. The plan has three pillars: personalized learning, belonging and inclusion, and well-being.
The well-being strategy states: “By 2028, we will nurture well-being among all students and staff by fostering belonging, ensuring physical and emotional health, and promoting safety, kindness, and personal responsibility.”
Robb Virgin, executive director of learning and innovation for EP Schools and a former Eden Prairie High School (EPHS) principal, said, “I was really glad our community, external and internal, named well-being as one of our pillars. For a school, which is really an academic place, to say well-being is one of the three areas we want to prioritize, speaks pretty loudly.”
He added, “We are working hard to replace the narrative that schools are exclusively academic institutions.” Virgin said that while the district’s schools are “not healthcare providers by any definition,” they place great importance on social-emotional learning as well as academics.
The strategy’s five main goals are:
- Each student will experience well-being through intentionally designed instruction and learning environments.
- As part of their Inspired Journey, each student will deepen their understanding of themselves to promote individual and community growth.
- Targeted mental health resources will be provided to students and staff based on identified needs.
- Ongoing professional development will support all staff in providing positive experiences for students, families, and one another that increase a collective sense of well-being.
- Each student and staff will receive continual training to improve and strengthen school safety and emergency response.
Swanson said he sees the district’s well-being strategy as fully intertwined with the personalized learning and belonging and inclusion pillars.
Focus on well-being isn’t a new strategy. For the past several years, Swanson said intentional investments have helped build stronger student-teacher relationships by lowering class sizes, mostly at the elementary level, to allow space to build stronger student-teacher relationships.
The district has also heavily invested in a cultural liaison model to foster better relationships with families of multiple languages and cultures. “That’s been super intentional work over the last four or five fiscal years,” he said.
All students also have access to social-emotional learning supports through the Caring Schools Curriculum, which includes Character Strong at Central Middle School (CMS), and Caring School Community at the elementary schools. Students also gain additional support through Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS), Advisor at CMS, and Connections at EPHS.
Minnesota is supporting districts, including EP Schools, in its efforts to enhance student well-being statewide.
For example, the last legislative session approved $64.4 million for the next biennium and $117.7 million for the fiscal year 2026-27 to fund student support personnel aid for critical mental health workers. The district said it will receive approximately $105,000 from this Student Support Personnel Aid. These funds, designated solely for personnel costs, supported the hiring of new social workers by the district.
Minnesota State Sen. Steve Cwodzinski, a former longtime teacher at EPHS and representative for District 49, said the state Legislature is prioritizing understanding how young people’s mental health impacts their education.
“We had a hearing last year specifically dedicated to hearing from kids,” he said. “Students testified about their post-COVID education. And we heard from the kids, they are hurting.” Cwodzinski added that the Legislature will invite the same students to testify again in February 2024 to track their well-being.
In the 2023 legislative session, the education omnibus bill also established a Mental Health Lead role at the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) to oversee school mental health spending, resources, and needs.
Swanson said it can be hard to parse out exactly how state and district money goes to support mental health because so much of it is embedded into everyday work with students, including things like “brain breaks” during the day, mindfulness, and getting outside during the school day.
However, in the past few years, direct expenditures by EP Schools have included hiring additional deans, counselors, and social workers at various schools, as well as reducing class sizes to strengthen student relationships and support mental health.
“We’re not a healthcare provider, we’re an educational agency, but we have lots of connections in the healthcare space,” Swanson said. “Over the last five years, we’ve also made significant direct investments into social workers, counselors, and in professional development for all of our staff in that space.”
To help children who may be struggling or in crisis, Swanson said the district has invested significantly in mental health services from the Washburn Center for Children in Minneapolis over the past several years.
Washburn therapists, co-located in EP Schools, are contracted to provide referred students with clinical mental health assessments, therapy, care coordination, and other ancillary services. They also offer professional development training to assist staff in addressing students’ social-emotional and mental health needs.
The district used ESSER Funds (federal COVID-19 relief dollars) totaling $787,500 ($350,000 annually) to add 3.5 full-time equivalent (FTE) therapists through Washburn, increasing the total to 11.5 FTE. Additionally, ESSER funded summer therapists from Washburn at a cost of $180,000 spread over two summers.
Prior to utilizing COVID-19 funding, the district had invested over $1.1 million in mental health services provided by the Washburn Center for Children. The costs included the following:
- Up to eight therapists to provide clinical mental health assessments, therapy, care coordination, and other ancillary services: $911,000 from 2018-19 to 2022-23. This was funded primarily through Local Collaborative Time Study (LCTS) grants, with about $60,000 covered by the General Fund each year.
- A full-time licensed mental health professional to provide co-located services to the Capstone and Wings program at EPHS. This was funded using state and federal Special Education funds.
Swanson said these investments are intended to proactively help students who, without support, might be headed for a crisis.
“The more we can do in terms of early intervention strategies, by helping kids develop coping strategies, by teaching things they can do to feel more calm and collected, the more we can help impact them not getting to that situation,” he said.
MTSS helps ensure each student is covered
To ensure all student needs are being addressed, including mental health, the district uses Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS).
“It’s a mind shift,” said Amy Peterson, director of special services for EP Schools. “We’re not just looking at academics anymore.”
EP students are divided into three tiers for the purpose of identifying needs and allocating school resources.
Tier 1 covers all students, and provides general programs and supports that are mostly built into everyday learning.
Tier 2 covers students who may need more individualized attention, and who may be struggling with issues like attendance, grades, behavior, and social-emotional challenges.
Tier 3 covers the highest-need students, who would have Individualized Education Plans (IEP) and need a stronger level of support.
Each student is matched with staff who can help them with specific support, should the need arise. At the middle and high schools, each student is assigned alphabetically by last name to a counselor, dean, associate principal, and social worker.
Students are able to make appointments to see these staff members. For instance, they could meet with their counselor at any time to talk about issues from academic to social-emotional. Counselors can also work with families of kids who may need extra support to obtain 504 or IEPs, both of which require specific procedures.
Gretchen Schuett, a CMS counselor, said that since the pandemic, her team has noticed students coming to them displaying huge increases in anxiety, depression, as well as school-avoiding anxiety, which can lead to chronic attendance issues.
Counselors also see students after a parent or teacher may have raised concerns.
“I see us as connectors between students, families, staff, and administration,” said Schuett. “We wear a lot of hats. A lot of our role is getting all of the right people in the room to become a team for a student who needs support.”
CMS head counselor Kelsey MacQueen said it’s important to know that although school counselors help with social-emotional concerns and do have some mental health background, they are not certified or licensed to provide mental health counseling or therapy.
“Our work with students in that capacity is really solution-focused and brief,” MacQueen said, adding that they focus mostly on short-term solutions to get struggling students back on track, and refer them to other resources if needed. They also work on academic needs and planning, preparation for high school, and social-emotional learning.
Special Services teams create wrap-around safety net
To support students with academic and social-emotional goals, EP Schools also have Special Services teams, which collaborate with staff across all grade levels.
These work together “to design instructional opportunities to support multi-lingual learners, students with disabilities, and students accessing additional support to build literacy and numeracy skills,” according to the district.
Special Services teams are coordinated by MTSS facilitators to discuss things like student grade data, attendance, and behavior.
Virgin said he believes MTSS facilitators play “one of the most critical roles in the system” because they are able to take a data-based approach to see the big picture of how a student is doing, then pull together key players to find solutions.
Kirsten Evavold, EPHS’ data-based instruction site coach, facilitates weekly meetings with a group of principals, counselors, cultural liaisons, deans, and a licensed school nurse.
Teams meet for about 90 minutes to discuss students who have been flagged for potential supports. Follow-up meetings might then include parents and students. Special Services often refers students for various mental health supports and the Hennepin County attendance program, she said.
“The huge benefit of this team, in my opinion, is that we have multiple lenses looking at it,” said Lisa Quiring, an EPHS counselor. She said each team member can address their area of expertise, whether it’s attendance, behavior, cultural impacts, or more.
Special Services efforts prioritize students for whom Tier 1 supports have not been sufficient. “We tend to start with a focus on the highest need and then kind of go down,” Quiring said. “They’re not failing one class. We’re looking for students who have multiple fails already in class, or have multiple absences that are unaccounted for.”
EPHS social worker Steve Banks said he often receives referrals from the Special Services team to assess students who might be struggling with social-emotional needs. Social workers are equipped to help students who may be struggling in ways that other staff cannot.
Students can also see Banks without a referral from Special Services. He said parents often directly approach him, concerned about a student’s change in behavior or refusal to go to school, as do friends of other students.
Banks said a lot of students he sees are still struggling from the lack of social interaction during COVID-19, plus the challenges of reentry into the in-person school environment and its related demands.
“At the high school, we saw that big-time with the last three ninth grade classes that have come in,” he said.
Students also increasingly drop in to see him, which he said he believes is a positive effect of the school’s growing focus on social-emotional education. “I can tell the education we’re doing for kids is pretty effective because I get a lot of self-referral, and kids referring other kids,” he said.
For students who are in immediate crisis, EP Schools student ID cards also now include contact information for 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, as mandated by state law.
On-site mental health resources via Washburn Center for Children
Another key resource is made possible by the district’s hiring of Washburn Center for Children therapists co-located in the schools.
Therapists are contracted to provide on-site clinical mental health assessments and therapy, care coordination, and other ancillary services. Washburn staff meet one-on-one with students who have been referred to them. In some cases, they also do professional development for staff, to help train them to recognize signs of possible mental health struggles.
“It makes a fundamental difference for kids when a district comes out and says mental health is important,” said Jennifer Britton, Washburn’s chief clinical officer. “Eden Prairie Schools has stepped into the children’s mental health space very differently than other districts.”
Some of the benefits of co-located Washburn therapists can be affordability and convenient access. “You don’t need insurance,” CMS counselor MacQueen said, which means that students whose families have limited financial resources can still get help. “If you have insurance, they will bill it, and there is also a sliding scale to pay. And then students don’t have to leave school or get a ride to a clinic.”
MacQueen said CMS has two Washburn therapists. However, because there is such a need for their services, “They are at capacity at all times, and there is a waiting list,” she said. MacQueen and staff at other school sites said that due to high demand, getting off Washburn waiting lists could take a couple of months, or even until the end of a school year.
CMS counselors have worked to find effective ways to support students in the interim, including meeting in groups to build social-emotional and executive functioning skills.
“We utilize what we can,” MacQueen said. “We ask ourselves, are there strategies we can practice with them in school, and with their parent or guardian? Are there other resources for parents? Because I think sometimes parents don’t know how they should be responding to things, and that can be scary. Sometimes pediatricians can also be helpful, but that’s an access to resources that not all families have.”
The district also works with other organizations like Cornerstone, Park Nicollet’s Growing Through Grief, and Hazelden, and is looking to increase its work with Relate Counseling for chemical health treatment, Virgin said.
Navigating the system can be challenging, but rewarding
Counselors also refer students to outside therapists, but that can present challenges, too.
“Most therapists have a four- to six-month wait unless you’re willing to do virtual therapy, but a lot of adolescents don’t want to do virtual, they want face-to-face therapy,” MacQueen said.
MacQueen and EPHS social worker Banks said counselors and social workers keep lists of therapists who they think could be good matches for specific needs, and try to connect families with those first.
Parents say anything that can speed the process to finding the right fit with a therapist is vital, especially when a student is in crisis.
“You have to find the right support, and it’s really hard,” said Alyssa Bloom*, whose high schooler attempted suicide during pandemic online learning. “We went through five therapists after the attempt. We could not find the right one.”
However, Bloom said, once you do find the right one, the results are worth it. “My child was in two different hospitals,” she said. “If you look at my child today, they’re not the same person. They are doing amazing. They are confident, happy, looking at college. They have friends who understand them. The trust between us is building again.”
Bloom added, “The best advice I would say to people going through this is, reach out to every support system possible. Your family, your friends, others who’ve been through it. Don’t rely on one thing. Get a recommendation if you can and observe a little bit, and if you feel it’s not working, switch. You can tell within one to three appointments if it’s working or not, if it’s a fit. Don’t wait weeks.”
Even people who have strong connections and knowledge about mental health resources inside and outside of school can have a tough time navigating the system.
Dirk Tedmon and Todd Mulder have two children who have consistently received Tier 3 supports, including now in EP Schools. Both work for education systems: Tedmon as executive director of marketing and communications for EP Schools and Mulder as administrative dean at Victoria Elementary in Victoria.
Despite their connections, it has been hard to find and access the right resources for their kids. Tedmon said, “People like us who are really well-versed and intimately involved in these systems also still struggle to figure them out — both inside and outside of school. If you don’t have any connections to these systems, I can just imagine how much harder it is for that family.”
Tedmon said that after he and Mulder adopted their two boys from foster care, they had to rebuild the kids’ support systems. Tedmon said, “When you adopt kids through the foster care system, there are an overwhelming number of resources. But once the adoption is finalized, all of those resources fall off. All of a sudden you’re left on your own, and you hope enough is set up to carry you through.”
Mulder said because they took placement of their boys a week before the COVID-19 stay-at-home order started in March 2020, the in-person resources they typically would have had in place also disappeared.
“The boys weren’t able to see their therapist in person anymore, to have access to their school, case managers, or school mental health professionals in person anymore,” Mulder said.
Unfortunately, he said, providers were not yet set up to provide extensive virtual treatment, which meant services were piecemeal. “Everyone was just trying to figure out how we transition everyone online, and it was really just survival mode,” he said.
Tedmon said that having a mental health case manager for their kids has been incredibly helpful.
“I didn’t even know those existed until we were involved in this system, but it’s actually available to many people. You don’t have to be in foster care, and a lot of insurance plans cover that — it’s just a service you have to ask for.” Tedmon said case managers can be advocates to help find resources and even connect families with a grant to cover the cost of an otherwise unaffordable service.
Mulder said both children are also now in the Community Alternatives for Disabled Individuals (CADI) Waiver Program.
“CADI allows additional access to resources beyond what is typical,” he said. “CADI provides us with a county case manager in addition to our private one.”
However, he cautions that qualifying for CADI was a complex and time-consuming process: “You have to go through a formal review first to get certified disabled, then they set up a waiver. It all took about a year of navigating systems at the county level.”
Focus on mental health being ‘re-shifted’ to include younger students
MacQueen said having MTSS at the middle school has been extremely helpful, especially as children are being diagnosed with mental health struggles much earlier than they used to be.
According to NAMI, one in six American youths ages 6 through 17 experiences a mental health disorder each year. Mental health issues are also manifesting and being diagnosed earlier, with 50% of all lifetime mental illnesses beginning by age 14, and 75% by age 24.
Public perception that high schoolers struggle more than younger kids “really needs to be re-shifted, because the reality is that over half of those students are diagnosed before they leave middle school,” MacQueen said.
In terms of EP Schools expanding its Special Services platform at CMS in order to embrace and support younger students, Virgin said, “We had previously seen that as a high school need, but now our middle school staffing matches our high school staffing.”
CMS counselors said they also work to make connections with counselors and social workers at other EP schools, to help more successfully transition kids from elementary to middle school, and middle to high.
“One major district-wide goal our counseling program has is to increase our connection across the district so our scope and sequence of curriculum, and the way that we’re addressing needs for students, becomes more universal in the secondary program,” said CMS counselor Schuett.
To help transition students from one campus to another, at the end of the school year, CMS counselors meet with high school counselors to go over their caseloads. This allows them to discuss what supports have worked for a student, and whether they might need to be continued. “We try to bookend at the middle school, so we also meet with each social worker from the elementary schools when students begin at CMS,” she said.
Parents suggested that with younger students struggling more, it’s also critical that families are invited to have deeper connections at the middle school level than they have in the past.
Bloom said she felt the roots of her child’s struggles developed while at CMS. But, because Bloom lacked the strong parent-teacher connections she had when her child was in elementary school, signs were missed.
“Starting with middle school, they want kids to be independent and have the parents go away and be hands-off,” she said. “The school asks you to trust them, they tell you that things will be ok, that they’ve got this. But they don’t have the staff and resources to handle it all.”
Bloom said, “Your kids need you more than ever at that age. For my kid, that was the beginning of the unraveling. It’s so clear now, looking in the rearview mirror, but at the time, I didn’t know that.”
Wish list: Even more in-school supports
Although the district has made it a priority to hire more support staff, there is still an ongoing call by staff and families to hire even more social workers and counselors.
One elementary teacher said she is grateful for the strong support she receives when one of her students is experiencing a crisis. However, she said she also has many students who could benefit from help with challenges like trauma, difficult family situations, grief and loss, academic anxiety, and social-emotional struggles.
Others echoed this. “We have one social worker, and all she’s doing is putting out fires and working with kids in crisis,” one elementary teacher said. “There’s no time for kids who are having a hard day, or a hard situation for a short amount of time, or even for kids who are having trauma because they are new to the country. The needs of the kids that have big behaviors is where the social worker is pulled.”
Staff also expressed a wish for counselors in elementary schools and a better ratio of counselors to students in the upper schools. MacQueen said, “We would love another counselor at CMS. When CMS had grades 7 to 8, there were four counselors. With sixth grade added, there are now five counselors.”
MacQueen added that additional staffing would help them do early intervention for more students.
“Our caseload size is unrealistic,” she said. “School counselors want to be as proactive as possible, to teach strategies and coping and how to detect warning signs as early as possible, so we can prevent some of the crisis management that we end up doing.”
Swanson said the district is doing its best to allocate funding in intentional ways that will best support student needs, including adding a second social worker, a fourth dean, and a second associate principal at CMS, all of whom support counselors in their work. “But every year we continue to look at what we need,” he said.
Erasing the stigma is still a challenge for some
Despite the many resources and supports offered by and through EP Schools, as well as its increased emphasis on social-emotional wellness, stigma can still prevent students and families from seeking or accepting support.
Virgin said the district tries to be cognizant of cultural differences that might mean families are reluctant to accept help. “We know people have different value systems around mental health and we respect that,” he said.
“And we want to have people know that we want to have a conversation with them in a way that gives their child what they need to be happy and successful. We’re not trying to change anyone’s beliefs, but we want people to know we stand ready to serve them,” he said.
Experts say the stakes are high: unaddressed mental health challenges can lead to stress, anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicidal ideation, or even suicide.
Washburn therapist Nora Smyth, who serves students at CMS, said it’s imperative to take kids’ mental health seriously.
“If you see symptoms and are concerned, or they’re in a straight-up crisis, talk every day, be there for them,” Smyth said. “Don’t allow stigma to prevent that.”
One teacher said they had a student in their class express extremely strong suicidal ideation, necessitating urgent action. Although the school referred that student for medical care, the parents reportedly refused to take them due to fears about stigma.
“I had to really work with the parents to get them to understand,” the teacher said. “We have to take the stigma away from getting kids help.”
Counselors, teachers, social workers, and therapists all said that they wish families would understand there is nothing shameful about seeking mental health support.
“No matter who you are, or what socioeconomic status you have, mental health is health and we need to treat it as such,” MacQueen said.
Smyth encouraged families to educate themselves about mental health supports and show their children that their struggles matter. For a child who is self-harming or expressing suicidal ideation, “It is traumatizing to have these intense feelings and have the world pass you by,” she said.
“They may think, ‘The world has forgotten me, I feel abandoned.’ It’s important to say, ‘I see your scars, your pain, your lack of a smile. I see into you. I’m here for you.’ You may feel pushed away but they’ll notice your absence if you don’t try.”
Smyth also acknowledged that for concerned friends, families, and caregivers, self-harm can be “very scary,” and “often misunderstood as a suicide attempt.” She said with self-harm, it’s important to “draw attention to the negative emotions they are experiencing. Don’t shame or focus on the self-harm behavior, which will only cause more negative emotions.”
Counselors said they welcome families reaching out to them to talk about their students. “We’re here in the schools for a reason,” Schuett said. “Reach out, if you have a concern. If you’re a parent, you might have two or three kids. We have 400. If you just need to bounce something off of us, like, ’Is this normal developmentally? What would you do?’ We can often be a good resource for that.”
Stay tuned for Part 5 of the Silent Struggles series next week: Co-editor Stuart Sudak delves deep into the life of Zane Stranger, a gifted 2018 Eden Prairie High School graduate who tragically died by suicide at age 23. Explore his hidden struggles, the broader mental health challenges many face, and a mother’s journey of love and understanding amidst profound loss.
Editor’s note: This EPLN project is partially funded by grants from the Eden Prairie Community Foundation and the Eden Prairie AM Rotary.
If you or a loved one is in crisis, please call 988, the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, or text “MN” to 741741. Trained counselors are available to help 24/7/365.
If you or a loved one is at imminent risk, please contact 911 and ask for a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) officer.
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