‘All this is so concerning:’ Office of Children’s Mental Health director delivers 2021 report | Local News
James Hulce, a college student and resident of Waukesha County, was in an online chatroom late one night when a fellow student started to make “dark and disturbing” comments.
Recalling a seminar he attended from the Wisconsin Office of Children’s Mental Health, alarm bells rang in his head, and he knew this behavior could signify a mental health crisis.
He attempted to get the attention of other users, moderators and assistants, but none responded at the late hour.
“At that point I had to make a decision: Do I try to take action myself, or should I just go on? Besides, I didn’t know this individual … surely someone closer to them will be much better positioned to intervene,” Hulce said. “Despite my doubts, I knew that I couldn’t turn away.”
Hulce asked the person if he or she was thinking about hurting or killing him or herself. The person said “yes.”
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Hulce offered peer support and reassurance through conversation that night and beyond. He helped that student develop a safety plan and connected with university resources. Two months later, he helped another student in a similar situation.
“Directly asking about suicidal thoughts or self-harm sounds intimidating and taboo, but actually enables the conversation by expressing your concern and overcoming shame,” Hulce said. “We need to build check-ins into our routines. Save time for these necessary conversations in your work and personal life. You could be the one to make the difference for someone else.”
Stepping in to help children, teens and young adults in distress is something the Wisconsin OCMH has long been working towards. OCMH’s goal for 2022 is to foster social connectedness of youth, making sure youth are socially connected, actively engaged in positive relationships and feel they belong, are safe, cared for, valued and supported.
OCMH Director Linda Hall discussed the office’s annual report via a Zoom web conference Tuesday morning on the status of children’s mental health in Wisconsin, concerning trends and what people can do to improve youths’ well-being.
The annual report additionally highlighted OCMH activities throughout the year, such as trauma-informed care trainings for the workforce, listening sessions for youth and clinicians and the creation of tools and resources to help families address concerns they may have for their children.
Hulce is a Lived Experience partner and just started at OCMH’s new Lived Experience Academy. The OCMH Lived Experience Partners are parents and young people taking part in a three-year program to build knowledge and connections in children’s mental health.
The first Youth Mental Health First Aid training event he attended happened just days before the fellow student made the disturbing comments.
Office of Children’s Mental Health Director Linda Hall called Hulce’s role in helping his fellow student “heroic.”
“You have made such a profound difference in these young people’s lives, and you are an example for all of us,” Hall said.
‘Pandemic has been rough on kids’
Pandemic-related disruptions have upended life for many children and families throughout Wisconsin, and deepened existing disparities, Hall said.
Hall said there is “much more” people can do to support youth to be healthy in body and mind.
“We’re really going to be calling on people to come together and get engaged even more in terms of addressing this crisis,” she said.
Adult mental health needs have decreased from earlier points in the pandemic, yet remain high, the report said. At the start of the 2021-2022 school year, almost half of Wisconsin parents reported frequently feeling down, depressed, or hopeless. Hall said that is “very concerning.”
“Parental stress is another critical factor because when parents are stressed, kids pick up on it and often become more anxious,” Hall said.
In the first few months of 2021, about 40% of Wisconsin families with children reported losing employment income due to the pandemic, according to data from OCMH.
Housing stability additionally remained a concern for many families. In 2021, 10% to 15% of Wisconsin families with children reported little to no confidence in their ability to pay the next month’s rent or mortgage. National data show that Latinx and black families have been hit particularly hard, the report said.
At least one-third of Wisconsin’s emerging adults, those ages 18-24, experienced anxiety most days from October 2020 to September 2021.
“The pandemic has been rough on kids, especially kids and families experiencing lost income, housing instability or food insecurity,” Hall said.
State and OCMH stepping in
First Lady Kathy Evers said children’s mental health is very important to her and state administration. Social and emotional learning and mental health are listed under her initiatives as first lady on Gov. Tony Evers’ website.
Kathy called children’s mental health a “top priority” for administration throughout the pandemic. Tony invested $19 million in the state budget for student mental health plus more than $150 million in federal funds to the schools and out-of-school programs.
“In 2022, we want to continue to work with communities on improving the mental health of our children,” Kathy said. “As Tony has always said, what’s best for our kids is what’s best for our state.”
The 2021-2023 biennial budget increased funding to reimburse school districts for school social workers from $6 million to $12 million. Hall acknowledged this state investment, and said that it’s made a difference, but the current supply still does not meet the youth treatment demands.
“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,” she said. “We need increased attention, collaboration and support from state, county and community leaders to address this crisis.”
Karen Katz, operations lead for OCMH discussed what the office has done to help Wisconsinites, including a mental health crisis card: a wallet-sized card to help people in a mental health crisis or agitated state to be able to communicate what will calm them.
OCMH additionally partnered with the Department of Public Instruction and developed free lesson plans on mental health for grades 3-12.
There’s also a feelings thermometer that promotes understanding and managing feelings in “a very user-friendly way,” Katz said. “It basically identifies ways to shift your mood to feeling happy, calm and content.”
Other resources include fact sheets, service guides, an image library, trauma-informed care training and support for families. All resources can be found on the OCMH website, children.wi.gov, and many of them are available in multiple languages.
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