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More Money Will Target Mental Health Intervention In Wisconsin Schools

Educators Say Mental Health Care Has Become Greater Area Of Focus

Students walk in the hallways at school
Hans Pennink/AP Photo

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction awarded $6.5 million in grants in July to help schools with mental health services.

That’s double the grant money available since the last state budget and a sign of the importance Wisconsin schools are placing on the mental health of students and staff.

Eau Claire middle school science teacher Sue Devine is excited for the start of another school year. She will be busy the next couple of weeks preparing her classroom and getting lesson plans ready, and then there is meeting 150 new students.

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“It’s that first couple of weeks that I think are really crucial to get to know each individual student and really build a relationship with them,” said Devine, the 2015 Wisconsin Middle School Teacher of the Year. “It takes a lot of time. There are some that have the red flags that you can tune in on more, but there are others that are more quiet that also have a story going on. The whole premise is for teachers to find that story and work together to make them successful, happy people.”

Devine has been a middle school teacher since 2004 and probably wouldn’t have used a phrase like “red flag” to describe getting to know a student back then. But in the past decade, Wisconsin schools have worked to become much more attuned to the mental health of their students and families and even their own staff.

“Twenty percent of our students have a mental health concern during the time that they’re students in our schools. Twenty percent of our adults also have mental health concerns,” said Barbara Van Doorn, a school counselor in the Lake Holcombe School District, northeast of Eau Claire.

A report from the Wisconsin Office of Children’s Mental Health said the suicide rate for children in Wisconsin has been growing since 2007 and the state rate for children dying by suicide is greater than the national rate.

Educators say social media and bullying are among the reasons why mental health among schoolchildren is a growing concern.

“We’ve gotten more focused at providing training and support for our teachers around those issues,” said John Humphries, superintendent of the Thorp School District, also east of Eau Claire. “We have in our school what’s called a sensory room. It’s a place where kids, when they‘re becoming so frustrated and agitated that they can go to decompress and let off some steam and return to the classroom ready to learn and ready to engage.”

Humphries said supporting mental health needs of students can sometimes create challenges for staff.

“We care a great deal about our employees and some of what we can do is simply saying, ‘Folks, when you need a break, you take it,’” he said.