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

SAUK PRAIRIE, Wis. (WMTV) – With a new school year underway, many schools in Wisconsin continue to face uphill battles to address mental health issues amid staffing shortages and increased demands for care.

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

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

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

Wright said some major school districts in the state have already had success using the service, and he hopes Sauk Prairie will see positive results as well. “We’re thrilled to provide this kind of opportunity for our students as well, knowing that we can’t do everything under this roof,” Wright said.

Mindy Breunig, a counselor at Sauk Prairie College, said mental health should be a community effort. “Our teachers and our administrators and our caretakers and our lunch people. We want everyone in the building to keep an eye on our children and work together,” Breunig explained.

This new school year marks her 20th year working in education, and she knows that responding to students’ mental health issues is an ever-changing 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 building those relationships is going to be hugely important,” Breunig said.

Not all school districts in Wisconsin are able to approach the new school year with this 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 issue and its website states that “more than 80% of incidents go untreated. For those who receive treatment, approximately 75% of the time it is administered at school.

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

“We feel these shortages. We hear school principals, superintendents, and directors of special education quite regularly ask how do you find a school psychologist? How can we provide these supports and services if we don’t have a school social worker? said Tim Peerenboom, school psychology consultant at Wisconsin DPI.

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

With so many unfilled jobs, Peerenboom explained that mental health student-to-staff ratios are overwhelming for many districts. “When mental health professionals are unable to focus on providing the services we are trained and experienced to deliver, students lose out, they don’t access those services, and professionals burn out because they feel like they’re ‘failing to do the job that they know they can do very well,’” explained Julie Incitti, school social work consultant at Wisconsin DPI.

The DPI has competitive grants that school districts can apply to help fund these positions, but Incitti said overall state support still falls short of what is needed to truly address the issue. “I also think school leaders can advocate at the state level for more funding for school mental health professionals. At the moment we have a categorical aid program which provides partial reimbursement but only for school social workers and DPI has tried to increase this to include school counselors and school psychologists as well,” said Inciti.

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

“We actually have our highest number of applicants ever! Last year, more than 150 graduate students applied to our Doctoral and School Psychology Studies program. We have an extremely competitive program and would like to accept more students than we can handle each year,” Eklund said in an emailed statement to NBC15.

Dr. Eklund added that the number of educators in this field is also significant. “The number of teachers is not decreasing. There are actually more faculty positions available now (and accepted) than 10 years ago. School psychology currently has more than 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 schools.

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

When asked for his opinion on how the current shortage of mental health staff in schools could be addressed, Dr. Eklund suggested that “the Wisconsin legislature could offer loan forgiveness programs to psychologists schoolchildren who choose to remain in the state of Wisconsin after graduation (similar to the teacher engagement program offered by the UW-Madison School of Education for applicants to teacher training).

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

This sentiment was echoed by DPI officials, with Peerenboom stating that “there is always a question of whether they are paid enough. As a school psychologist or social worker, you attend many schools and are a college-level professional and many school districts do not 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 that school districts:

-Create positive work cultures with employee appreciation incorporated.

-Support staff to have a work-life balance.

-Give staff more breaks with soothing spaces to do so.

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