by Baylor Spears, Wisconsin Examiner
Katherine, a Polk County resident whose name has been changed to protect the privacy of her children, and her 18-year-old son have seen several therapists at different times, navigated school supports and crossed state lines for an inpatient program in order to address his anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. She says adequate support in Wisconsin hasn’t always been available.
“A lot of times when you’re struggling with mental health you’ll hear over and over again ‘Reach out for help and we’ll help you,’ and then when you reach out, there’s nobody there,” Katherine said.
While Katherine and her son’s experiences are personal, the challenge of finding adequate mental health support is faced daily by teens and their families across the state, especially recently as teen mental health has declined.
Teenagers in Wisconsin, as in much of the U.S., are facing significant mental health challenges.
According to the Wisconsin Office of Children’s Mental Health’s annual report, over half of Wisconsin high school students reported experiencing anxiety, and over a third said they felt sad or hopeless nearly every day. In addition, 22% of high schoolers also reported self harm and 25% of teen girls reported seriously hurting themselves.
Katherine says that her son has dealt with anxiety since he was young with some of that being related to his autism. However, she says the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated his struggles and he started dealing with depression and suicidal thoughts as well.
“It makes it hard just to get there sometimes,” Katherine says. “Sometimes for my oldest. If he’s feeling emotionally unwell, sometimes he wouldn’t go [to school] at all or he would request to come home early, and that was hard. When his depression hit, school attendance became more difficult.”
Katherine says finding support for him has included finding a therapist, who fits a list of criteria including having the expertise to work with autistic individuals.
“Finding therapists is a nightmare because you want to find somebody that’s a good fit, has availability and accepts your insurance,” Katherine says. “We recently tried to find a new therapist and it was very difficult, and we still aren’t even sure that they’re going to be covered with our insurance. Places wouldn’t call us back or they would say our waitlist is full or we’re not taking any more clients or… we don’t take your insurance. It’s very frustrating.”
Part of the challenge in finding a therapist is due to Wisconsin’s ongoing shortage of mental health professionals. Mary Battaglia, executive director of National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Wisconsin, says the mental health workforce shortage is actually the biggest current barrier to addressing the mental health crisis.
“There’s a workforce shortage, so there’s a limited number of therapists. There’s especially a very limited number of child psychiatrists. There’s a limited number of regular psychiatrists,” Battaglia said. “Even in the most populous parts of our state, people are having a hard time getting in to see providers in our office.”
According to the 2022 County Health Rankings & Roadmaps report, there are 440 people per one mental health provider in Wisconsin, which is sparse compared to the national average of 350 people for every mental health provider.
Battaglia said NAMI consistently receives calls from parents who, like Katherine, are working through the same challenge and may be waiting months at a time before securing an appointment with a therapist.
“One horrific example is a mom has a teenage son who has had an attempt on his life and he’s checking out of the hospital with… an appointment in nine months with the psychiatrist and that’s the first appointment she can get with him,” Battaglia says. “That’s very scary for family members who don’t have the skills. It’s just a scary time for parents because they can’t find the support and help that they need for their children.”
Katherine says her son has had to do two partial inpatient programs due to his suicidal ideation. She says the one that they went to in Eau Claire was not set up well for autistic people, and alternatives in-state were limited, so they went next door for help.
“[The Eau Claire hospital] was really noisy and had crying babies in the area and stuff like that. It was not a good setup,” Katherine says. “The second option was to go to Minnesota or you could go all the way to Milwaukee — which Milwaukee is way too far for us. The partial hospitalization programs are all in Minnesota, really, unless you were gonna go fairly far.”
She said the Minnesota program provided the most help for her son, and that there’s really nothing like that in Wisconsin.
One mother explores alternatives
Nicole K., a Green Bay Mother , says she spent many years hitting dead end after dead end trying to attend to her oldest son, who dealt with oppositional defiant disorder and a mood disorder, from a young age.
Now, as Nicole looks to support her younger sons and teen daughter, who is also having mental health challenges, she says she is dealing with the same lack of support from traditional routes.
Nicole says she went to the hospital with her 14-year-old daughter, who was having suicidal thoughts, about three weeks ago. She said they arrived at 7 p.m. on Wednesday and didn’t leave until 4 a.m. Despite staying for nine hours, Nicole says they spoke with a nurse and doctors about blood test results, but went home without speaking to anyone about her mental health.
“We didn’t get help that night,” Nicole said. “They let me take her home even, like, knowing that she was going to be home alone the entire next day because she had no school the next day, and I had to work.”
Nicole says she called some of Wisconsin’s crisis centers that night to see if they could find an available bed but was unsuccessful.
Wisconsin has three youth crisis stabilization centers — including two in Milwaukee and one in Wausau — that provide support and services during the earlier stages of a mental health struggle before more intensive, costly and restrictive interventions are required. Each has no more than eight beds.
Nicole says she’s hesitant to utilize Wisconsin crisis stabilization centers because they often rely on talk therapy, and it’s not a method that worked for her older son. “It’s ‘sit down and talk to me for a couple hours until you’re no longer feeling the way that you’re feeling’,” Nicole said. “I don’t feel it’s prevention. I feel it’s a Band Aid.”
Nicole says she also hasn’t seen talk therapy help her daughter, who has seen four different therapists, because she won’t really speak with them. Despite this, her daughter is trying talk therapy, again, Nicole says, because she was referred by her school.
With an appointment coming up, it will be several weeks between her visit to the hospital and receiving some type of mental health support.
Nicole says she’s also noticed her younger sons starting to deal with some mental health issues, but she’s not addressing it through the traditional route because of her previous experiences.
“My 7-year-old has ADHD, and I’m almost positive he has depression,” Nicole says. “Instead of going through normal — quote unquote — normal avenues for Wisconsin to get him help. I have completely changed up my home.”
She got rid of the couches in her living room to help make it an ADHD-friendly space and created an art center for her kids, so they have somewhere to express themselves.
“Instead of pouring all of my thoughts and time into trying to find a therapist and doing things that I believe I’m supposed to be doing as their parent such as getting them professional help, I know that there is no professional help out there for their age,” Kirkpatrick says. “There is no prevention because I’ve looked into it and I’ve tried.”
Improving Wisconsin’s mental health resources
State lawmakers and leaders are considering how they can help ease some of the mental health challenges faced by Wisconsin families. The Senate and Assembly have both held informational hearings on mental health, and Gov. Tony Evers proposed additional funding to address shortfalls in Wisconsin, although the Legislature’s budget committee threw out Evers’ proposal to spend $235 million on school-based mental health resources.
As state leaders ponder the best way to address the mental health crisis among Wisconsin children, advocates and parents have their own opinions about what would help.
Nicole says one of the most helpful things for her family has been the parent peer support provided by Wisconsin Family Ties, a parent-run organization that works with parents of children with mental health challenges.
“Wisconsin Family Ties is the only thing that keeps me sane dealing with all of this,” Nicole says.
The group, which employs people who have direct experiences of mental health struggles, looks to help Wisconsin parents navigate the systems of support available to them as well as to address other issues that could be impeding a family’s ability to find support.
Amy Ardnt, a parent-peer specialist for Wisconsin Family Ties who has experience supporting her own children, says she works to empower the families that she works with.
“When a family is in crisis, sometimes it’s hard for them to even pick up their arm, much less pick up the phone or to research what’s available, what’s out there. I’m able to do that with them. I’m able to come to meetings and they’re able to call me so we don’t work typical 8 to 5 hours.”
Ardnt says she thinks there should be additional funding for peer support because it is such a valuable resource that helps parents support their children. Ardnt says peer-family services help because of the level of understanding that someone who has gone through a similar experience can offer a family working through their own situation.
“It’s not as intimidating for a family to work with, say, somebody like myself,” says Ardnt. Peer supporters “can help them on a different level and help them engage with the systems, so they’re not alone… A lot of them, they don’t trust the county [or] they’ve been in trouble with [Child Protective Services] or something,” she adds.
Battaglia says there isn’t a magic fix for the mental health challenges facing Wisconsin residents, including when it comes to addressing the mental health workforce shortage. But she is glad to see, some of the proposed solutions currently on the table, including tax breaks for people who choose to enter the mental health field and the recognition that their work is badly needed.
This story was written by Baylor Spears, a staff reporter at the Wisconsin Examiner, where this story first appeared.
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