By Hayley Crandall
Mental Health Awareness Month is upon us, and Children’s Wisconsin has a variety of resources available for children and families as the mental health crisis in the state grows.
Children’s mental health was already being recognized as a significant issue in Wisconsin prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but since the pandemic, circumstances have only escalated, Amy Herbst, the vice president of Mental and Behavioral Health at Children’s Wisconsin, explained.
“The pandemic just increased that need for mental and behavioral healthcare for our kids,” Herbst said. “It was already a crisis and the pandemic has made things worse.”
Issues stem from children being greatly secluded during these times, according to therapist Shanna Sullivan. She explained that current situations have taken a toll on kids of all ages.
“Because of social distancing and isolation, we see kids are really missing out on peer interaction, which is very closely tied to mental health, and really struggling with feelings of loneliness,” Sullivan said.
Children’s Wisconsin has taken a series of steps to combat these circumstances and more.
In late 2019, the health care organization identified seven initiatives to address mental health concerns, which it planned to implement through 2025. The initiatives aim to take mental health just as seriously as physical health, Herbst said. Unbeknownst to the organization at the time, Children’s Wisconsin was ahead of the game.
“It really positioned us well to adjust to the pandemic,” Herbst said. “I feel like we were a starting already from a place of strength and when the pandemic struck, yes, we did have to make some adjustments, but we had a really good foundation to build off of.”
The initiatives look to address the following:
1. Universal screening
2. Early childhood mental health
3. School-based mental and behavioral health
4. Integrated mental and behavioral health
5. Therapist fellowship program
6. Urgent mental health
7. Partnerships with inpatient and residential care providers
Part of the initiatives includes “Shine Through,” a campaign which features free online resources to help families begin the mental health conversation and find help if needed.
This campaign hopes to help decrease stigma around mental health and treatment, Herbst explained.
“It’s just a really beautifully designed online resource that we’re using as part of our way to reduce stigma and help parents be the parents their kids need,” she said.
Sullivan noted that families can play big roles in assisting children regarding mental health and that there shouldn’t be fears around talking about these issues. She explained that the key thing is for parents to listen to their kids and engage them.
“One of the most important things that they can do is listen to their kids, to really stop and take the time to hear what their children are needing right now,” Sullivan said. “We know that kids have been immensely impacted by COVID-19, and really by any of the stressors going on in our environment.”
Other efforts from Children’s Wisconsin come in the form of screenings. A variety of areas of medicine have integrated mental health screenings during visits to help pinpoint warning signs and offer care, Herbst explained.
Herbst also highlighted telehealth, which has been a key tool during the pandemic. Virtual appointments have allowed providers to access children who may not always have care readily available. These actions can help reach those in rural areas of Wisconsin or kids from the inner city. It was a bit of a silver lining, she said, and it will continue to be part of how Children’s Wisconsin provides care.
Through all these actions and more, Herbst hopes the negative assumptions towards mental health eases and detection efforts becomes stronger. She believes that there is also still a lot of work to be done around improving access to care.
“It’s one thing to say we’ve screened you and identified a need, it’s another thing to be responsive to that need and to say now that we’ve identified this need, we also have access to the mental health care that you need,” Herbst said. “We’ve made a ton of progress, but we have a long way to go.”
Further information and resources can be found on the Children’s Wisconsin website, https://childrenswi.org/medical-care/mental-and-behavioral-health