Originally published as an Op-Ed on UrbanMilwaukee.com by Amy Herbst, Vice President of Child Well-Being at Children’s Wisconsin and Ann Leinfelder Grove, President & CEO of SaintA
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a threat to the well-being of many of Wisconsin’s children and families. While the focus over the past 12 months has been on flattening the curve of the spread of the virus, and we’ve made progress, we can’t overlook what is proving to be the next wave of concern. Influenced by the pandemic, there is growing evidence of declining mental health for children and youth. As Wisconsin considers priorities in the upcoming state budget process and the uses of federal CARES Act funding, it is critically important to invest in the mental health of Wisconsin’s children and families.
It is estimated that about 6% of U.S. children ages 6 through 17 are living with serious emotional or behavioral difficulties, including children with autism, severe anxiety, depression and trauma-related mental health conditions. When schools closed and healthcare professionals canceled in-person appointments, many children and youth lost an important connection to mental health treatment and support. Though thankfully some of those connections to services were able to be maintained through telehealth, still many were not.
These issues are critical for all families, and the barriers are real – lack of affordability, mental health workforce shortage, lack of transportation, fragmented care, lack of culturally-competent care, and stigma.
Collectively, SaintA and Children’s Wisconsin are making considerable investments to ensure that the physical and mental health of our children are well supported. SaintA delivers mental health services in an outpatient clinic on the Northwest side of Milwaukee and throughout the region. Children’s provides mental health care in outpatient clinics statewide and by integrating mental and behavioral health care in primary care clinics throughout SE Wisconsin, in specialty clinics and in the hospital emergency department. SaintA and Children’s also bring this important care to kids where they are. Combined, the two organizations serve students in over 80 schools across the state.
While we are making a difference in the lives of the families we serve, we are doing this work with an underfunded system that leaves many other families falling through the cracks and struggling to access essential services in a timely manner.
Wisconsin needs to make mental health a priority for the health, safety and well-being of our children. This has always been true yet has become more urgent during the pandemic. This is due to pressures placed on children, youth and families who have faced heightened fear and anxiety, social isolation, family instability, job and income loss, as well as loss of support and social ties from relationships, experiences and traditions that moved to virtual.
When children do not get the support and treatment they need, their health, relationships and academic performance can suffer. The most challenged children and youth with unattended mental health needs can end up in hospital emergency rooms or in police custody.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that, from April to October of 2020, hospitals across the U.S. saw a 24% increase in the proportion of mental health emergency visits for children ages 5 to 11, and a 31% increase for children ages 12 to 17. At Children’s there was an 80% increase in referrals for outpatient mental health when comparing December 2020 to December 2019.
For these reasons, we must work together to prioritize the mental health needs of kids and families in Wisconsin. Thankfully Democrats and Republicans have a history of coming together on this issue, recognizing the importance of investing in mental and behavioral health services. Some examples of those successes include leading with innovative solutions to combat opioid and other drug addiction, increasing Medicaid rates for certain services and paying for school consultation time, providing grants to bring mental and behavioral health services into schools, creating the child psychiatric consultation program to connect primary care providers with psychiatrists or providing grants to help grow the therapist workforce. These were significant bipartisan achievements, and we are hopeful that Governor Evers and the Legislature will continue to work together on this issue moving forward.
ABOUT SAINTA AND CHILDREN’S WISCONSIN
Collectively, SaintA and Children’s Wisconsin are organizations that work to ensure that all children and families thrive, as well as that the children of Wisconsin will be the healthiest in the nation. Together, the organizations serve hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin children annually.
For more information visit www.sainta.org and www.childrenswi.org.
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