Experts: Push for youth mental health services can't slow

By: Felix Farley
May 6, 2017
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Our second annual Day of Action looked back on the second year of Kids in Crisis and the effect it's had across the state. Photos by Danny Damiani, video by Jen Zettel (May 4, 2017). Wochit

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Kris Cahak, a psychiatric nurse and mother of Morgan Pieper, speaks during the Kids in Crisis Day of Action Thursday, May 4, 2017, at Overture Center for the Arts in Madison, Wis.(Photo: Danny Damiani/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)Buy Photo

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MADISON - Legislators and mental health advocates agree that while USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin's Kids in Crisis has shined a much-needed spotlight on youth mental health, more work needs to be done.

"This series — as well as the town hall meetings, press conferences —  does what we alone can’t do in the Office of Children’s Mental Health," said Elizabeth Hudson, director of Wisconsin's Office of Children's Mental Health. "If we want solutions and healthier kids, the public has to be engaged. This is one of the most powerful ways to do that."

Gov. Scott Walker included $6.5 million in new funding for youth mental health initiatives in his proposed 2017-19 budget. His budget proposal included the full request put forward by the Department of Public Instruction, and included new funding for school mental health programs and social workers.

Rep. Dave Considine, D-Baraboo, and Rep. Amanda Stuck, D-Appleton, said lawmakers on both sides of the aisle favor the initiatives. The two lawmakers attended USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin's Day of Action event Thursday in Madison, which sought to bring advocates and policymakers together to discuss solutions to Wisconsin's youth mental health crisis. Gov. Scott Walker spoke at the event, which capped the second year of USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin's Kids in Crisis series.

Considine said he expected the measures to remain in the budget. He called the measures part of a bipartisan consensus around K-12 school funding. "There's a lot of sentiment that we have to get money back into public schools," Considine said.

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Stuck said lawmakers need to collaborate with community partners to come up with creative solutions. She heard of a proposal to change state law so public schools could use their community service fund to raise property taxes for the express purpose of covering mental health services. (The law currently limits the amount schools can increase property taxes without a public referendum.)

"While all of this is a good investment, it's not enough to address the problem. We need to give schools additional tools so they can get the revenue they need to provide children the services they need," she said.

Considine said he would like to see less money devoted to the Department of Corrections and more put toward community and youth mental health initiatives.

USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin launched the Kids in Crisis series last year to examine the growing prevalence of youth facing mental health issues and potential solutions. The teen suicide rate in Wisconsin is nearly a third higher than the national average, and Kids in Crisis investigations found that services available to youth often fall well short of recommended levels. The series has continued in 2017 to keep a spotlight on the issue — and to seek solutions in communities across the state.

Hugh Davis, executive director of Wisconsin Family Ties, said more needs to be done to change how people view youth mental health and to create a unified system of support for children and families.

Oftentimes adults see children with mental health challenges as attention-seeking, manipulative or as obstacles, instead of seeing them as children in need.

The services currently available often require families to enter the child welfare system and in some cases the juvenile system to get their child help.

"We have a cobbled together set of services …  We need to take a look at an overall children’s mental health system that provides for the entire range of service intensity without parents having to enter other systems that really don’t make sense for them," he said.

Furthermore, communities need to keep talking about youth mental health.

"We cannot forget this is an ongoing issue," Stuck said. "We always need to keep it in the forefront."

Jen Zettel: 920-996-7268, or ; on Twitter ; Liz Welter: 920-743-3321, ext. 4114, or ; on Twitter 

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