Access to mental health services - WQOW TV: Eau Claire, WI NEWS18 News, Weather, and Sports

Access to mental health services for local families becoming increasingly difficult


 Eau Claire (WQOW)- Much like an engine powers a car your brain drives your body, linking thought to action.  Skipping an oil change can leave you stranded on the side of the road so we take steps to prevent that. But when it comes to our mental health many of us can't remember the last time we 'lifted the hood'.

"If you broke your arm you would go to the doctor," says Jessica Modjeski, a social worker with the Eau Claire school district.  "If you can't get out of bed because you have severe depression or anxiety you should be able to go to a mental health provider to get that same level of care and treatment that your body needs."

Dr. Axelrod, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire puts some numbers into perspective. "If we look at the number of adolescents that meet the criteria for a psychological or psychiatric disorder we're talking roughly about 1 in 6."

"I think we're seeing a lot of families who are struggling with mental health issues," adds Modjeski. "Struggling with alcohol and other drug abuse, struggling with being homeless and so there are a lot of issues kids are bringing to the table at school."

According to NAMI, the National Alliance for Mental Illness, 50 percent of lifetime mental illness cases begin by age 14. But those with mental health issues are one of the state's most under served groups.  Between 2009 and 2011 Wisconsin cut $107 million from its mental health budget.

On a December morning in 2012 bullets ripped through the halls of a Connecticut elementary school, 26 people were killed. Most of them just 6 or 7-years-old.  In the days that followed we paused and shuddered to place ourselves in that nightmare. What if one of those innocent children were one of our own? One of the teachers a sister, a friend?

But there was another group, a group of parents, watching the horror unfold and imagining: What if the shooter were my child?

"One can imagine how many sleepless nights that parent has," says Dr. Tom Johnston, director of Marriage and Family Health Services in Eau Claire.  "They're worried about what that child is going to do, they're worried about what's going to happen next." He adds that, "The vast majority of kids who will be seen are never a danger to anybody else. They might become a danger to themselves if their issues aren't addressed. But certainly the shootings that we are seeing and just the concern about violence in and outside the schools highlights the need to do something and help children"

In the echoes of gunfire a conversation has grown louder. President Obama has signed a sweeping $500 million directive, including plans that focus specifically on mental health issues. At the state level, Governor Scott Walker recently announced plans to funnel nearly $30 million toward mental health services. $10 million of that will go to community based care for adults and children with severe mental illness.  These programs can help reduce hospital visits, improve health and increase employment.  In his next two year budget the governor has also called for the creation of an office of children's mental health, aimed at coordinating services statewide.

Research done by NAMI shows that in any given year, only 20 percent of children and adolescents with mental disorders are identified and receive mental health services. "If we're allowed to work with these children at a young enough age, for example if we're allowed to work with them in that 5 to 11-year-old age group, they haven't got into the alcohol and drugs," explains Dr. Johnston.  "They haven't developed the secondary behaviors, the self harm types of things. The level of self harm and suicide with adolescents is one of the leading causes of death for that age group." It's believed that over 90 percent of children and adolescents who commit suicide have some type of mental disorder.

Modjeski echoes Dr. Johnston's worries. "Worst case scenario, suicide is definitely one of our big concerns with children. I think sometimes kids do not understand the finality of that act and so if you have undiagnosed depression or anxiety you might make a choice, as a child, that you don't fully understand"

Others may turn to self medication, either by drugs or alcohol. And in extreme cases, when a child or teen displays behavior that is harmful to themselves or others they can be placed in a foster home or a juvenile detention center. Eau Claire County's juvenile detention center can hold kids as young as 10 and as old as 17. "Almost every one of them have come in with some mental health problem," explains Rob Fadness, director of children's court services. "Some of them are in the grieving process, some of them are in the process of dealing with AODA issues. Some are in the process of dealing with depression" 

For some families asking for help can be the first of many hurdles.  The Eau Claire school district recognizes that transportation can become a barrier to care. "I think a lot of the families that I work with, who might be lower income, have to work those second shifts or are working two jobs," adds Modjeski. "So finding the time to fit another appointment into their schedule is really difficult and they absolutely want help for their child but making it all work is sometimes really unmanageable, especially if you are a single parent." School districts like Eau Claire have come up with a solution to that problem. They've begun partnering with area agencies to put the brakes on transportation issues.

Dr. Johnston says he has staff working in at least a dozen school districts. "We're seeing a growing interest by a number of districts to allow licensed professionals to come into the schools to provide services. We're now in districts from Ellsworth to Wisconsin Rapids, to Ladysmith. Little towns like Pittsville, bigger towns like Chippewa Falls. And now there is a real interest, started last year, from the Eau Claire school district."

Dr. Johnston explains how it works, "If you have a licensed person, from a licensed clinic, then they can tap into third party sources of funding such as insurance to pay for those services. So the child gets the care and they don't have to worry about transportation issues. They get the access to the care and the schools and counties aren't held financially responsible for the services. So then the child gets better and the services are paid for."

It sounds simple enough, but Dr. Johnston says too often that's become the exception and not the rule. "In many cases the symptoms that the child has, the issues that the child has, those are very important but one of the deciding factors is what insurance group do they have. We are seeing more and more kids, deserving kids of mental health services, denied access to care" 




Eau Claire (WQOW)-  In any given year, only 20 percent of children and adolescents with mental disorders are identified and receive mental health services. That's according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Access to mental health services for local families is becoming increasingly difficult. A growing number of children are being denied the care they need. 


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