APPLETON — As fifth-graders at Janet Berry Elementary School asked Gov. Tony Evers questions about his favorite cheeses (Gouda and Munster) and baseball player (Christian Yelich), and whether he hesitated about running for governor (“Heck yes”), he turned the conversation to more serious matters.
Evers was at the school Monday on the first of two stops to talk about mental health among young people.
“When preparing our budget for the next two years, using schools as an example, what we do in Madison directly impacts what happens in the school,” Evers told the auditorium of students .
Here’s what he stressed to students and media at the Appleton school, and later at the Craig Yabuki Mental Health Walk-In Clinic at Children’s Wisconsin.
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The Evers Administration made its first investment last year
In February 2022, the governor kickstarted his focus on children’s mental health with an initiative called Get Kids Ahead. He used $15 million in American Rescue Plan Act dollars — COVID relief money — to provide funding for school-based mental health services for nearly every school district in the state. In the fall, he doubled down on the investment, adding another $15 million in ARPA funds.
By the end of the year, each public school was eligible to have received a minimum of $20,000, and the remaining ARPA funds were allocated on a per-pupil basis.
Evers underscored his emphasis on the issue in the 2023 State of the State address by declaring this The Year of Mental Health.
Now, Evers is looking to the Legislature for more mental health funds
Evers wants the Republican-controlled Legislature to budget $270 million over the next two years. If approved for the 2023-25 biennial budget, the money would be used to support the following permanent programs:
- $235.8 million to completely revamp how mental health services are provided in schools, so that the wide range of needs being shown by students today are included.
- $36 million per year to reimburse schools for the cost of expanding the mental health services workforce.
- More than $1.1 million for staff training on mental health first-aid and trauma-based care training, essentially helping teachers identify struggling students.
- Nearly $11 million to receive Medicaid reimbursement for telehealth costs.
Mental health concerns are unprecedented
Nationally, students are experiencing unprecedented levels of mental health concerns, some tied to the pandemic, some to substance abuse, some to genetic disorders and some to environmental stressors, like social media.
In Wisconsin, last year’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey, more than half of high school students reported problems with anxiety, one-third reported dealing with depression, and nearly one-fifth had at least considered suicide. The numbers were worse for female and LGBTQ+ youth.
Districts don’t have nearly enough school counselors, social workers and psychologists.
Although Janet Berry Elementary School is well-staffed, should a student require a specialist outside of the school, it may take weeks or months to line someone up, said Matt Zimmerman, assistant superintendent for Appleton Area School District. Parents may have to pay out of pocket if they can’t find someone covered by insurance, and may have to figure out transportation to get students to appointments.
“If we could accelerate that process, that child could be helped sooner, and they’d have a better quality of life a little sooner,” Zimmerman said.
Evers thinks the funding would be enough
Evers’ 2023-25 biennial budget request would provide the largest increase for K-12 schools and education in state history.
But is it enough?
Evers said the funds wouldn’t just be reactive, but would be preventative.
Children’s Wisconsin is now training the next generation of pediatric psychologists
From Appleton, Evers headed to Children’s Wisconsin where he reiterated the need for mental health services for school-aged children.
Amy Herbst, vice president for mental and behavioral health at Children’s Wisconsin, said she’s been grateful for the investment of ARPA dollars from the Evers Administration to create new mental health services at Children’s, such as the hospital’s first-ever pediatric psychology residency program, which would allow psychologists to train as residents in Wisconsin and make it likelier for them to put down roots in the state.
“Before now, (psychologists) would have to leave Children’s or leave the state to do their training, and we don’t want that to happen because they might not return,” Herbst said. “We’re going to use this program to keep psychologists here and bring psychologists here as well.”
Evers claims to be optimistic that the topic of youth mental health is nonpartisan, and one that Republicans and Democrats can come together on.
“I can’t imagine this not being a Republican and Democrat issue,,” he said, “and so I’m looking forward to having a positive conversation with them (and) for the state to step up and be a leader on this issue of kids’ mental health.”
Sarah Volpenhein of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.
Natalie Eilbert covers mental health issues for USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin. She welcomes story tips and feedback. You can reach her at [email protected] or view her Twitter profile at @natalie_eilbert. If you or someone you know is dealing with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or text “Hopeline” to the National Crisis Text Line at 741-741.