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Wisconsin Mental Health Advocates Calling for More Funding as State Sees an Increasing Demand for Services

Friday, March 24th, 2023 -- 11:01 AM

(By Gaby Vinick, Wisconsin Public Radio) Wisconsin mental health advocates are calling for more funding and investment in access to care amid fast-growing demand for services.

According to Gaby Vinick with Wisconsin Public Radio, leaders spoke at a virtual Wisconsin Health News event this week to address community needs as the state sees what Gov. Tony Evers described as a "quiet, burgeoning" mental health crisis.

"We are very concerned about the crisis service system right now. I like to say we can either pay for it now, or we can pay for it later," said Mary Kay Battaglia, executive director of NAMI Wisconsin, an affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

She said a shortage of providers means people are having a hard time finding care when they need it. "The number one thing is the workforce. We're having moms call our office to say they've got an appointment in nine months for their son who just had a suicidal attempt at a hospital," she said.

Wisconsin's suicide and crisis hotline call volume soared since it adopted a shorter 988 number. In January, the line received 6,030 calls, compared to 4,074 in January 2022. The state Department of Health Services reported the suicide rate in Wisconsin outpaces the average of neighboring states.

The suicide rate was higher every year since 2005, save for 2012, according to a recent Mental Health and Substance Abuse Needs Assessment. The Wisconsin Office of Children's Mental Health reported earlier this year that more than half of high school students in the state experience anxiety.

The number of students reporting feeling sad or hopeless almost every day has risen by 10 percent over the last decade.  Linda Hall, director of the state Office of Children's Mental Health, said educators are sounding the alarm as they look to help kids surmount difficult mental health challenges.

"We hear school staff and teachers saying kids are coming to school with such severe trauma and issues that they're dealing with that we need help, we need space to address mental health and work with them," Hall said. "And we need the training to be able to do that."

Hall said one solution she hopes to see is health plans that pay for qualified treatment trainees, people with a master's degree and some experience but without licensure yet.

Battaglia also would like to see the state focus on "earn-while-you-learn" career ladders to increase the number of providers and expedite the licensure process for social workers.

In Wisconsin, 440 people are served by one mental health provider, according to a County Health Rankings & Roadmaps report in 2022. Nationally, that ratio shrinks to 350 people to one mental health provider.

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