Children’s Wisconsin unveils $150 million plan to increase mental health services

More than philanthropic dollars needed to fund initiative, health system says

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Children’s Wisconsin says it needs $150 million to implement a multi-faceted initiative to address growing mental and behavioral health needs among Wisconsin children over the next five years.

The health system said funding to carry out the plan will need to come from a variety of sources including philanthropic support, patient revenue from expanded programs, state and federal dollars, contracts and partnerships and a direct investment by Children’s.

Several donors have already pledged support, including Kohl’s, which announced in March its $5 million gift to support system-wide screening, school-based programs and mental health awareness efforts. Rexnord Foundation has pledged $1 million to Children’s efforts; and Boldt Corp. has also given $1 million, which will partially fund Children’s Therapist Fellowship Program.

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The effort is aimed at addressing what Children’s leaders say is a public health crisis related to the mental health of kids and adolescents in Wisconsin, said Amy Herbst, vice president of mental and behavioral health at Children’s. A 2017 Wisconsin Office of Children’s Mental Health report showed kids and teens in Wisconsin are hospitalized for a mental health condition at more than four times the national rate, and the state’s youth suicide rate increased more than the national rate from 2015 to 2016, and is significantly higher than most of the United States.

Children’s proposed seven initiatives to detect mental and behavioral health needs sooner, improve access to services and reduce the stigma around the illness. They include universal screening for mental health, regardless of a child’s visit; early childhood mental health services; school-based mental and behavioral health programs; integrated mental and behavioral health services in primary care offices and specialty clinics; a therapist fellowship program; offering a pediatric psychiatric assessment team and space in the Children’s emergency department; and partnerships with inpatient and residential care providers.

“We know our community looks to us to do what is best for kids. Children’s has more than two million touch points with kids across the state each year. We believe this plan identifies how Children’s can impact a significant number of kids in the state,” Peggy Troy, president and CEO of Children’s said. “Mental health is something we as a community must address – without it, we are not fulfilling our commitment to improve the health of Wisconsin’s kids.”

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Universal mental health screenings will allow Children’s to assess all youth that come in contact with the system, even a child who is in for a routine dental screening at a Children’s dental clinic, Herbst said.

“Most people wouldn’t think of (doing a ) mental health screening, but we do believe mental health is health and we want to screen all of our kids,” she said. “So we have a system in place where even that child would receive the appropriate screening and if it demonstrates any type of concern, we want to be responsive to that and get them access to mental health services.”

Children’s currently offers school-based mental health programs in more than 40 schools across the state. In Racine Unified School District schools, for example, Children’s mental health program is paid for by the school district, which has received funding from several local organizations — including the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread, SC Johnson, Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare, United Way of Racine County and the Racine Community Foundation — to defer some of the cost. Some additional expenses for the services have been funded by recent increases in state budgets to start these programs.

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Children’s said conversations need to continue with commercial insurance companies and Medicaid over sustainable payments for these services over the long-term.

“Meeting the mental health needs in the community is going to be multifaceted,” Herbst said. “We must enhance and build off of the improvements other organizations are doing, while developing partnerships and models that allow us to sustain these efforts for years to come.”

Troy said a plan is “still being created” for how to implement the seven initiatives that Children’s has identified.

“I have always been impressed at how this community and state has rallied to help kids, and my hope is this plan helps to advance conversations with partners in the community to further improve how we are all addressing mental health,” she said.

Herbst said early conversations with potential donors have been well-received.

“The community has been very responsive already to us at Children’s as we talk to individuals and corporations and foundations about what we think kids and families need in this state in terms of mental and behavioral health care,” she said. “It’s a big lift in terms of the philanthropic need. But everybody has been very interested in that work.”

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