As more children struggle with mental health, Wisconsin offers tools to support them

With school being out of school, many parents and guardians are spending more time with their children – which provides an opportunity to check on their mental health.

Concerns about young people’s mental health have been growing for years. Before the pandemic, about 60 percent of high school students in Wisconsin were experiencing anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. While it is difficult to quantify how the pandemic has affected children’s mental health, experts say isolation, disconnection from school and friends, family financial strains and the illness and death of loved ones have exacerbated children’s mental health problems.

In the first few months of the pandemic, there was a 24 percent increase in mental health emergencies for children ages 5 to 11 and a 31 percent increase for ages 12 to 16. LGBTQ+ youth are twice as likely to experience anxiety, depression, and suicidality as their non-LGBTQ+ peers.

The end of the school year can be a double-edged sword for students, said Linda Hall, director of the state Office of Children’s Mental Health. This can bring relief from academic pressure, bullying, and lost sleep time, but it can also mean students are cut off from many of the friends, trusted adults, and activities they rely on during the school year.

“If you feel like this is happening to your kids, I would say look to your community,” she said. “Where are the places where your kids can get together with other kids in the community so they can help each other and maybe have some supportive adults there as well to help ground them and give them some ideas on how to be healthy and safe.”

To tie in with the recent release of a two-part PBS documentary on children’s mental health that focuses on children’s experiences, Hall and the Office of Children’s Mental Health highlighted best practices and resources for helping children manage their mental health and stay connected to their communities.

Freeing up space at home

Hall said adults should make space to listen to their children every day.

“Create a space, even if it’s for a few minutes, no agenda, no judgment, just be open to listening,” she said. “They might not say much at first, but they’ll soon start opening up to you.”

A recent study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison showed that adults’ habits also greatly influence their children’s behavior, especially around technology.

“We need parents to model putting down your phone and screens and engaging with your kids,” Hall said. “Whether it’s going outside to play a game, having a meal together, where you talk and the phones are in another room, these are all important things to identify.”

She said adults also need to be in touch with their own mental health. When they don’t value the emotions and experiences they bring to the table, they run the risk of interpreting their children’s actions or feelings not based on the children, but based on their own issues.

“We also need better access for parents to mental health and substance abuse treatment because we know there are parents who don’t have access to that kind of treatment,” she said. “Their disability affects their children.”

Resources at the school, state, and national level

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Hall noted that the majority of children who receive mental health help get it at school, and while some districts are able to continue those services over the summer, many are not. Some schools also can’t afford counselors or school psychologists to meet the needs of their students—or, even if they can afford them, can’t find people to fill those roles.

If parents notice changes in things like their children’s sleep, diet or interaction, Hall said their first resource should be the family pediatrician or general practitioner. However, only 55 percent of children in Wisconsin have a “treating home,” or family-centered family doctor or nurse practitioner, that they use for sick and well-being visits, so this option is not available to all families.

The Children’s Mental Health Service website has several resources, including a “feeling thermometer” to help children – and their adults – know how they are doing.

The site also has mental health crisis cards, guides to children’s mental health services and fact sheets on various children’s mental health issues.

A national hotline for mental health services, 988 — modeled after 911 — is set to launch later this month. Hall said Wisconsin has a lead in centralizing its services and should be able to use the hotline to connect families with services when it launches.

Mental health services are not regular, but students want to help

Many school and community-based mental health services for children are funded for free, which can often mean they are at risk of disappearing if funding runs out. With federal dollars pouring in through several rounds of coronavirus relief funding, some schools have been able to put more money into mental health services — but that’s also time-bound, as pandemic relief dollars must be accounted for by 2025 .

“These programs are very helpful and important, but we need them to be funded on an ongoing basis,” Hall said.

Children who struggle with their mental health begin to experience symptoms of emotional distress an average of 11 years before they seek treatment. Hall said school mental health programs can help ease their symptoms while they wait for treatment.

“We know that in their behavior, kids show us what they’re thinking,” Hall said, pointing to reports of increased preschool suspensions and more disciplinary problems at school. “What we need to do is get behind these behaviors and try to understand what is this child trying to communicate to us?”

One tool, she said, is youth mental health organizations, of which there are 135 that the Office of Children’s Mental Health has identified in Wisconsin. These include ‘Raise Your Voice’, ‘HOPE Squads’ and ‘SOS’.

“We’re hearing from the young people we’ve spoken to in the listening sessions and in other working groups that they believe we need to do more about mental health literacy,” she said. “They have ideas and they want to be at the forefront of addressing them at school.”

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text Hopeline to 741741.

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