March 21st, 2023
Innovative pilot position transitions into permanent program, seeks expansion
MANKATO, MINN — A year after launching a pilot position to address youth mental health, community partners are sharing its successes and looking to expand to serve more students throughout the region.
Last spring, local organizations collaborated to create the Youth Mental Health Navigator pilot position within Mankato Area Public Schools with funding by Greater Mankato Area United Way, Mankato Clinic Foundation and Mayo Clinic Health System.
The concept came out of Greater Mankato Area United Way’s conversations with community organizations in regard to escalating youth mental health needs in the area.
In April 2022, Patrick Clark was hired as the full-time Youth Mental Health Navigator serving five elementary schools in the Mankato Area Public Schools.
Since then, the position has proven itself to be both urgently needed and incredibly successful.
“We began seeing positive outcomes immediately upon position being implemented,” said Greater Mankato Area United Way CEO Barb Kaus.
One of the biggest outcomes has been the drastic reduction in wait time for a child to be seen by a provider.
“Instead of waiting several months, kids are getting connected more quickly, sometimes immediately, with an average of approximately one month,” Clark said. “This makes all the difference when a family is scared, stressed and seeking help.”
By helping families navigate the system and following up on questions about insurance and other aspects, the position frees up time for school social workers, teachers and counselors, allowing them to be more available for the important direct interactions with students.
Most commonly, Clark connects families to mental health services, such as therapy. He also refers them to other resources for support and enrichment, such as activity scholarships through Connecting Kids, a Greater Mankato Area United Way program hosted by Mankato Area Public Schools.
Clark works with families of all backgrounds and income levels. “This support opens a lot of doors for kids and their families,” he said. “Parents tell me what a relief it is to have someone there to help. It’s provided people with hope.”
Innovative Position Expanding to Serve More Children
For several years, Greater Mankato Area United Way has been leading initiatives addressing mental health needs. “Mental health was already a top issue before the pandemic increased the needs dramatically,” said Kaus. “The current mental health crisis affects every one of us, especially children in our communities. As in other areas of need, we are really focusing on prevention to make lasting change.”
In 2021, Greater Mankato Area United Way began convening a task force around the topic of youth mental health. It included school and community leaders as well as healthcare providers. Discussions presented the common barrier of how much of a social worker, counselor or teacher’s time was needed to help families find resources and navigate the system. From there, the new position took shape.
There are not many models similar to Mankato’s Youth Mental Health Navigator. According to Clark, the position is unique for not only focusing on mental health but also being located onsite inside the schools.
“Schools are important places for identifying a child’s needs since they spend so much time there,” he explained. “If you free up staff, it makes a huge difference in terms of time and capacity for serving more youth.”
With the position’s successful first-year outcomes at five elementary schools, Greater Mankato Area United Way and Mankato Area Public Schools are transitioning the position from pilot to permanent. United Way is seeking to add mental health navigator positions to serve schools throughout the region, eventually expanding to preschools, junior highs and high schools.
The leaders look forward to further opportunities for expansion. Kaus credits the community for embracing the navigator position, which has the potential to be modeled in many other communities.
“This position can serve as a blueprint for others across the country,” Kaus said. “Our region should be very proud to be supporting an initiative that is paving the way on youth mental health.”
About Greater Mankato Area United Way
Greater Mankato Area United Way serves Blue Earth, Le Sueur, Nicollet and Waseca counties in Minnesota. In 2023, Greater Mankato Area United Way is supporting 55 programs within 38 agencies. These programs serve more than 51,000 people annually through the impact areas of Basic Needs, Health and Education. Greater Mankato Area United Way also convenes the community around important issues such as mental health, literacy, suicide prevention, sex trafficking prevention, substance use disorder advocacy and other topics. Visit MankatoUnitedWay.org to learn more.