The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread is advocating for a fundamental change that would put mental health care services directly into schools for children who need them.
The foundation has spent three years studying the problem of an under-served portion of the community.
They found that one in five children ages 5 to 17 have a diagnosable mental health disorder and that 80 percent do not receive the treatment they need. The concern is lack of services and treatment prepares the children to fail once they become adults.
“Like any illness when something goes untreated it worsens,” said Kathryn Wennig, with Dane County's National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Children who do not get treatment for mental health concerns also struggle in school, experts say.
“Many of these kids have escalating behaviors. They end up with truancies, with suspensions, behavioral problems. Many of them resort to bullying and depression. In the extreme situations there are links to violence,” said Karen Johnston, mental health consultant for Fox Cities.
Six years ago 10 school districts and 23 area schools in Fox Cities began placing mental health care professionals in the schools. They did so with the assistance of funds provided by the United Way and other grants.
The program has seen results.
“We’ve seen improved academics for kids that had academic issues coming into the program. We’ve seen less truancy and suspensions in some of the district,” Johnston said. “One of the real issues in the Fox Cities that we went into this looking at is a high rate of suicide in one of our school districts. We’ve seen some success and a reduction in suicides among adolescent behavior.”
Throughout Wisconsin the interest in school-based mental health care is growing.
“We’ve grown to understand that much more in the last five years. We’re part of a national movement that way,” said Jeannette Deloya, coordinator of mental health supports at Madison Schools. “There are 25 different states in the country that have adopted school-based mental health models.”
While there is a cost associated with developing a school-based mental health program, advocates say the price is higher to not create one.
“I would say we can’t afford not to do it. I think it is one of those things that it is a long-term investment that saves us money in the long run,” Wennig said.
They see the money spent to provide mental health care to children in need as an investment in the future.
“We have a disproportionate number of kids who really end up in corrections, which costs us more money in the long run. So to me this is the best prevention model that you can have,” Johnston said.