Keeping kids close: Clinical resources in school give students free, convenient access

rack of pamphlets Kristie Anderson will be the first to admit that students probably think of it as “the sex clinic.” But as nurse practitioner at Minneapolis Washburn Clinic—one of several school based clinics offered at all Minneapolis public high schools—she also knows that a teen’s embarrassment quickly turns to relief once they experience the on-site benefits.

“Once they get in, they see it’s a lot more than (what they thought),” Anderson said. “It’s a nice space, so I think people get kind of comfortable in here.”

Indeed, when the clinic first started out, it was built to provide pregnancy prevention and safer sex education, Anderson said. It has now grown to be one of the most comprehensive school-based clinics in the country.

clinic room with a bed

In addition to reproductive resources, the Washburn clinic offers sports physicals, acute and chronic care, immunization, nutrition, mental health counseling and health education outreach.

But that’s not enough for Anderson.

“In my perfect world, we’d have (dental care) and we’d have vision and service for kids with visual needs,” she said.

For now, it does plenty. Jennie Markworth, a full-time psychologist at the clinic, treats students most commonly for “stress and anxiety, relationship issues, depression, ADHD and trying to stay on top of school stuff.” After reproductive health, the most widely used resources at the clinic are for mental health—yet it’s not something most students are aware of, said Washburn student Emma Stotts.

“We’re really lucky, as students of Minneapolis public schools, to be able to have access to therapy and other mental health resources for free,” said Stotts, who has used the mental health resources on site. “I think that the therapists there are really great. I think having therapy is really important for a lot of kids, but it’s hard to get to. And if you do find it, it’s really expensive. So having easy, (affordable) access to it is super helpful.”

Yet there’s a “huge difference” between mental health and mental illness, Anderson said, which is a potential reason for some of the roadblocks teens face in seeking help. Coming to the clinic for mental health reasons can include school stress, dealing with unhealthy relationships, bullying, eating disorders, family issues or depression and anxiety.

“There are those where it is a mental illness situation, way bigger than a high school can provide for. What I mean by that is that some students need real intensive services that a licensed psychologist seeing patients on an hourly basis just can’t provide,” Anderson said.

For Anderson, the most beneficial part of the clinic is access for the students. “Kids can come in during school. Parents don’t need to take off work,” she said.

Added Markworth: “I think that being able to have a private space in school is huge. You don’t get pulled out of school. You’re not gone for a few hours, and for kids whose home life is stressful, their parents don’t have to be part of it. They are more empowered themselves to access, and it’s more theirs.”

Resources are also free for students. The clinics are funded by the Minnesota Health Department, with extra grant funding helping to support the hiring of clinical staff.

Markworth does the best she can to provide services to every student that needs them, but for all the clinic does, she is still incredibly understaffed.

“Stats say that probably 20 percent of all teens are dealing with some mental health issue. So in a building with 1,400 kids, 20 percent of 1,400 is way more than my capacity,” she said. “That’s the hardest part. Not having more capacity.”

“If someone does not have insurance we will absolutely see them with no cost to that person. If the parent has insurance, we will bill the insurance company for the part they will pay or cover. What they don’t cover, we don’t charge the student or parent,” Anderson said.

Chloe Engel, a senior at Southwest High School, appreciates that the clinic at her school is safe and confidential. Access to clinics in school gives students a sense of independence and maturity that allows them to easily connect with and open up to the experienced staff, she said.

“I’ve gotten pretty close with our nurse,” Engel said. “She always asks how I’m doing and feeling.”

“I think what the students don’t realize, but come to appreciate, is that the people in this clinic are dedicated to adolescent health care and are experts in that care, and that we really understand teen issues,” Anderson said.

For Greta White, a senior at Washburn, that’s all a teenager needs sometimes.

“It’s nice that they offer that in school, like if you wanted to talk to someone if you’re stressed,” she said. “I think (my parents) would love it. I’m sure they don’t know anything about it, but I think they’d like it.”