School-based mental health services a top priority for Wis. Office of Children’s Mental Health

Published: Jun. 29, 2023 at 9:22 PM CDT

(WSAW) - In January, Gov. Tony Evers declared 2023 as the year of mental health, calling it a “burgeoning crisis.” He laid out roughly $500 million in mental health budget priorities, many focused on supporting kids. However, many of those requests have been reduced or cut as the budget moves through the legislature.

Schools are natural hubs to get resources and services of all kinds to kids. It is partly why districts try so hard to address so many needs that go beyond academics.

”We’re just spinning our wheels,” Heidi Siebert, the director of Pupil Services and Special Education with the Antigo School District said.

Like Antigo, districts around Wisconsin have used grants and pandemic funding to try to support students’ mental health.

”We’ve used those funds to try to build our systems and our capacity of our staff so that once the funds are gone, we can at least have something still in place,” Siebert explained. “Because we never are guaranteed funds.”

”What we really need for kids is, is stable funding for school mental health,” Wisconsin Office of Children’s Mental Health Director Linda Hall stated.

She said when it comes to looking at the state budget and opportunities for policy changes to improve children’s mental health, school-based mental health initiatives are the office’s number one priority.

”While less than half of kids who are diagnosed, get mental health treatment, of those who do get diagnosed, 75% of them get treatment at school.”

When schools are able to offer mental health services, it breaks down barriers for students to get help.

“Their parents don’t have to leave work. There are people who, you know, come to the school who understand kids. They can work with kids, and their milieu, help them navigate the school and their feelings about school and people at school. And so it’s just, it’s a very effective way for us to support kids, and to get to them earlier.”

However, schools have had difficulties hiring and retaining mental health staff, in part, because candidates do not know if they will still have a job in a few years when the money for their position runs out.

”There are a lot of school districts, especially in rural areas, who don’t have the staff that can invest time in, you know, continually applying for grants. And then with grant money, you can’t always do some of the things you want to do in an ongoing kind of way.”

The governor’s budget recommendation added about $270 million of ongoing funding into school-based mental health supports, like hiring mental health professionals and providing training for school staff like teachers. The legislature, so far, has approved only about $30 million for that purpose, much of which is still in grant form.

”You always would like to see a little bit more, but I think for mental health, I think it’s a good, good start,” Rep. Pat Snyder, a Republican representing the 85th Assembly District said.

He explained he believes in sustained funding for school-based mental health services, but he told 7 Investigates in April that his caucus has been strict.

“I’ve been preached to that, ‘OK, we can’t grow government, and we can’t spend a lot of money.’ So, I try to look at ways (in) legislation that will help them achieve the goals they want to achieve.”

He has been happy to see other items advocates have recommended continuing to make it through the budget process so far. That includes increasing the number of psychiatry residents at the Medical College of Wisconsin. A program expanding the existing child psychiatry consultation program to a broader mental health consultation program is something he also is excited to see to help people waiting to see a psychiatrist get help more immediately through their primary care provider.

However, being able to pay for mental health services is another barrier. Some providers are not in-network for families regardless of whether they are on private or public insurance, and some providers do not take Medicaid because of the low reimbursement rate.

”A third of all kids in Wisconsin are on Medicaid, so this is, this is huge,” Hall noted.

The legislature did not approve a full Medicaid expansion but did provide some increases for Medicaid reimbursement, just not in all services.

The legislature also did not include the governor’s request to require all insurance to cover services provided by a therapist in training. It is a recommendation that advocates say could alleviate some of the cost burden for families and the shortage in mental health professionals.

“These are people who have completed their master’s degrees, they have experience already, they just are not yet licensed,” Hall explained. “They need a little more practice, and they are completely supervised when they go to schools.”

7 Investigates: Supporting Students

Looking at priorities to fill gaps in children’s continuum of care, Hall said a big one is having a psychiatric residential treatment facility. That is a secure facility that provides care that is less intensive than a psychiatric hospital, but more intensive than community-based care.

“We don’t have any of those in Wisconsin right now. And we have kids, hundreds of kids leaving the state to get that treatment in other states, which is expensive. It means that kids are further away from their families and that coming back to their families is a harder transition. So, we really want to see that that gap in the continuum fixed.”

Gov. Evers put about $1.8 million in one-time funding to build those facilities in communities in his version of the budget. The Joint Finance Committee removed that from its version and the Senate did not bring it back in.

However, the budget is not the end-all for helping to support children’s mental health. The OCMH has a list of initiatives, recommendations, and ways anyone who wants to help, can. Rep. Snyder also encourages people to contact their local legislators so they know what their constituents want from their budget or policy.

“I kind of just say that, if we don’t have healthy kids,” Rep. Snyder began, “then what’s the state going to look like down the road?”