New report on Wisconsin kids’ mental health a mixed bag

MADISON, Wis. — A new report on the state of Wisconsin childrens’ mental health is a mixed bag, with some areas of improvement and other areas showing continuations of pre-pandemic declines.

The report released Tuesday from the state’s Office of Children’s Mental Health shows that some indicators like high school graduation rates and the number of school counselors and other mental health workers made progress. Still, racial disparities remain in graduation rates and the current supply of mental health professionals still falls short, Linda Hall, the agency’s director, said.

The report also shows that while indicators appear to show progress reducing the number of children with mental health conditions who have gone without treatment and the number of mental health hospitalizations, the figures “don’t yet reflect the past year’s increased hospitalizations, worsening bed shortages and emergency room boarding of young people in crisis,” Hall added.

Key mental health measures — the number of children with a mental health condition, high school students feeling sad or hopeless, teens considering suicide and suicide attempts — appear to be going in the wrong direction, though the report does not yet include suicide attempts and mental health concerns documented since the start of the pandemic.

Other areas, like the number of students not getting at least eight hours of sleep each night, the percent of students who felt like they belong at school, and the number of high school students feeling sad or hopeless, were falling even before the pandemic. The report does not capture increased mental health concerns amid the pandemic.

“To summarize, the pandemic has been rough on kids, especially kids and families experiencing lost income, housing instability or food insecurity,” she said. “We see the continuation of the pre-pandemic years-long trend of increased anxiety and depression among youth. We see investments made by Wisconsin to increase the school social worker, counselor and psychologist workforce have made a difference but the current supply does not meet the treatment demands of our youth. All this is so concerning because we know that untreated mental illness as a child has lifelong negative effects for adult health and well-being.”

Moving forward, Hall said governments and community leaders need to increase their focus on the issue to help find solutions. Her agency is focused on improving childrens’ social connectedness and will roll out more specific implementation ideas this year.

Research shows that will make a difference for kids, she added.

While Hall said the overall picture is “discouraging,” she stressed Wisconsin is not alone, pointing out that U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory last month “to highlight the urgent need to address the nation’s youth mental health crisis.”

At the beginning of the current school year, a number of southern Wisconsin school districts identified mental health as one key funding goal they hope to address using federal pandemic relief funds.