WI schools face shortage of mental health professionals, Sauk Prairie innovates to provide appropriate care

SAUK PRAIRIE, Wis. (WMTV) – As a new academic year begins, many Wisconsin schools continue to face uphill battles in addressing mental health concerns amid staff shortages and growing demands for care.

The Sauk Prairie School District is fortunate to have a full staff of school counselors, psychologists and social workers this year, but officials say they “could always use more” and are constantly looking for new ways to ensure there are resources convenient available not only to students and staff but also their families.

“We know there are many children and adults too who need mental health care but are on waiting lists that can be 6 months or more. Navigating the health care system, accessing mental health is very difficult, especially in rural parts of the state. We’re no different,” said Sauk Prairie School District Superintendent Jeff Wright.

That’s why the Sauk Prairie school board recently approved a new online service called CareSolace to offer free, individual and group therapy to families in the district.

Wright said several larger school districts in the state have already seen success using the service, and he hopes Sauk Prairie will also see positive results. “We’re excited to bring this type of opportunity to our students as well, knowing we can’t do it all under one roof,” Wright said.

Sauk Prairie High School counselor Mindy Breunig said addressing mental health needs to be a community effort. “Our teachers and our administrators, our custodians and our lunch people. We want everyone in the building to keep an eye on our kids and work together,” Breunig explained.

This new school year marks her 20th year working in education, and she knows that addressing students’ mental health concerns is an ever-evolving task, but gaining their trust is always her first hurdle. . “Students won’t come to you if they don’t feel comfortable. Being visible early on and establishing those relationships will be extremely important,” Breunig said.

Not every school district in Wisconsin is able to approach the new school year with as much confidence in their mental health resources.

Data from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction shows that one in five students will experience a mental health problem, and its website states that “over 80 percent of incidents go untreated. For those who do receive treatment, approximately 75 percent of the time it is administered at school.”

It comes as the number of mental health professionals working in schools is dwindling across the country.

“We are feeling those absences. We regularly hear from principals and superintendents and directors of special education asking how to find a school psychologist? How do we provide these supports and services if we don’t have a school social worker?” said Tim Peerenboom, a School Psychology Consultant with Wisconsin DPI.

As of late August, WECAN (Wisconsin Education Career Access Network) showed the following number of open positions in schools across the state: 37 social worker jobs, 45 psychologist jobs and 56 counselor jobs.

With so many jobs unfilled, Peerenboom explained that the ratio of students to mental health staff is overwhelming for many districts. “When mental health professionals are not able to focus on providing the services that we are trained and experienced to do, then students are lost, they are not accessing those services, and professionals are burned out because they are feeling like they are. they’re not getting to do the work that they know they can do really well,” explained Julie Incitti, a School Social Work Consultant with Wisconsin DPI.

DPI has competitive grants that school districts can apply for to help fund these positions, but Incitti said overall support from the state consistently falls short of what is needed to truly correct the problem. “I also think school leaders can advocate at the state level for more funding for school mental health professionals. “Right now, we have a Categorical Assistance Program that provides partial reimbursement, but only to school social workers, and DPI has been trying to expand that to include school counselors and school psychologists,” Incitti said.

However, when it comes to recruiting and teaching the next generation of school-based mental health professionals, Dr. Katie Eklund with UW Madison’s Department of Educational Psychology offers a more positive perspective.

“We actually have our largest number of applicants ever! Last year we had over 150 graduate students apply to our PhD and EDS program in School Psychology. We have an extremely competitive program and would like to admit more students than we can each year,” Eklund said in a statement emailed to NBC15.

Eklund added that the number of lecturers in this field is also large. “There is no decreasing number of faculties. There are actually more faculty positions available now (and being accepted) than there were 10 years ago. School psychology currently has over 150 training programs across the country.”

Dr. Eklund explained that UW students prepare for their future careers through a School Psychology training clinic, which in turn, supports the schools.

“Our graduate students work as interns and interns alongside school psychologists in local schools. Together, they provide individual and small group mental health support for children and youth, and provide school-wide social emotional learning, trauma-informed care, and crisis response services within schools.

When asked for her opinion on how the current shortage of mental health workers in schools could be combated, Dr. Eklund suggested that “the Wisconsin legislature could offer loan forgiveness programs for school psychologists who choose to stay in the state of Wisconsin after graduation (similar to the Teacher’s Promise program offered by the UW-Madison School of Education for teacher candidates) .

She also advocated that school districts could “increase the pay of school-employed mental health professionals so they can better meet the needs of children in local schools.”

This sentiment was echoed by DPI officials, with Peerenboom stating that, “there’s always a question of whether they’re being paid enough. As a school psychologist or social worker, you go to a lot of schools and you’re a graduate-level professional, and a lot of school districts don’t have the funding to support a full-time person.”

In the short term, to help recruit and retain quality mental health professionals in schools, DPI recommends school districts:

-Create positive work cultures with embedded staff appreciation.

– Support staff to have a work-life balance.

– Give staff more breaks with calming spaces to do this.

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