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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

Report: Here's how Wisconsin can legislate better mental health support in schools

school lockers
Emily Files
Lockers at a Milwaukee public schools.

Last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national emergency for children’s mental health. Doctors say the loss and isolation of the pandemic has made a bad situation worse.

In Wisconsin, Gov. Tony Evers recently announced $15 million in mental health support grants for K-12 schools.

But there is more Wisconsin can do to improve mental health resources in schools. A new report from the Hopeful Futures Campaign examines state-by-state policies related to student mental health. Wisconsin scored six out of a possible 24 points.

"One of the most important ways to help youth is to meet them where they’re at," says Angela Kimball, the report's lead author. "And youth are at school so many hours of the day, every day — that becomes a very natural place to provide mental health services."

Kimball is the senior vice president of advocacy and public policy at Inseparable, which is one of 17 national organizations that make up the Hopeful Futures Campaign. The campaign aims to improve mental health support in schools.

Kimball notes that the report only looks at state statute and statewide data — it doesn't reflect what's happening on the ground in every school district.

Here are a few of the report's recommendations for Wisconsin:

  • Invest money to improve the ratios of school mental health support staff. Wisconsin has one school psychologist for every 901 students, compared to the recommended ratio of 1:500. Wisconsin's school social worker ratio is even worse, at 1:1,750. The recommended ratio is 1:250.
  • Require training for K-12 teachers and staff on mental health conditions, substance use conditions and suicide awareness and prevention, including available school and community-based services and resources.
  • Expand Medicaid to include school-based mental health services, including via telehealth, for all Medicaid eligible students. Currently Wisconsin only covers school-based mental health services delivered via telehealth for students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs).
  • Require annual well-being checks for all students and staff in K-12.
  • Require K-12 health education to explicitly include education on mental health, similar to legislation passed by New York and Virginia.

Even though the report aims to encourage state lawmakers to take action, it could also provide a framework for individual schools to improve mental health support.
"There's so much that happens at the local level that really can fuel innovation and provide the start that allows state legislators to see the promise of a program and scale it up with state funding," Kimball says.

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Emily is WUWM's education reporter and a news editor.
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