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Wisconsin Adolescent Mental Health Professionals Call For More Funding To Meet Increasing Needs

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Since the beginning of the pandemic, young people seeking mental health treatment has rise substantially.

With schools closed and young people isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic, cases of mental health emergencies among people under the age of 18 rose across the country. At Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, mental health professionals saw an 80% increase in referrals for outpatient mental health treatment from December 2019 to December 2020.

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With large amounts of federal funding coming to Wisconsin from COVID-19 relief packages and the biennial state budget slated to be passed this year, Ann Leinfelder Grove, SaintA president and CEO, and Amy Herbst, vice president of mental and behavioral health for Children’s Wisconsin, are calling for more funding to be invested into adolescent mental health services.

SaintA delivers mental health services through clinics on the northwest side of Milwaukee and throughout the region. The children's wellbeing nonprofit is a leading national expert in trauma-informed care. And, Children’s Wisconsin provides outpatient clinics statewide and integrates mental and behavioral healthcare in primary care clinics, specialty clinics and in the hospital emergency department.

Herbst says, “We need expansion and efforts so that we can continue to do more together and individually to make sure that we’re getting our kids the mental and behavioral health care that they need."

The need for adolescent mental health care is growing, Herbst says, and she doesn’t expect it to stop growing in the near future. She says that the current health care system in Wisconsin favors funding for physical health treatments over mental health services, something she says needs to be equalized in order to provide adequate care.

Leinfelder Grove says not only is it important that mental health care receive more funding but that the funding goes towards preventative care to start giving young people help early in their struggle with mental health issues. “It isn’t just about the system being underfunded per se, it’s about us being smarter about what needs to happen in order to really create that positive change long before a crisis occurs,” she says.

In May, Wisconsin Republicans introduced an education budget plan that included no new state aid for schools over the next two years. Combined, SaintA and Children’s Wisconsin serve students from over 80 schools in the state. Leinfelder Grove says the lack of new funds makes it more difficult for schools to bring in therapists or other mental health professionals to give all students access to services.

Herbst says that Wisconsin already has disparities amongst schools, with some having the resources to provide mental health treatments and others lacking those available treatments. She says state aid provides a steady source of funding to programs and increasing it can help bring more equity in access to mental health services.

“It really is important that we are able to rely on some of that state and federal funding and that the school districts are able to do that, so there’s more equity in what’s available to our kids across the state because without some of that additional support not all school districts are able to put in place the mental health care that they would like to add,” says Herbst.

They say without additional state funds, mental health services will have to rely more on private donations, a source which can be unsteady and difficult to expand with.

“It does mean that the risk of restricted access going forward, if some of that structural deficit isn’t addressed, or the need to continue to pursue philanthropy in longer range settings and that’s problematic,” says Grove. “People give, they respond as they can but ultimately that should be seed money and strengthening money, not permanent response to the budget gap.”

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