For those of us who work to improve youth mental health, recent headlines regarding the subject are a constant reminder we have our work cut out for us.
We are in the midst of a youth mental health crisis, have been for many years, and the latest Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) data for 2021 confirm, yet again, the alarming trends: Wisconsin students report experiencing significant mental health challenges while having fewer supports at home and at school. (The pandemic only worsened our collective mental health, for youth and adults).
Statewide YRBS data published recently by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction revealed the continuation of a decade-long trend. The number of students reporting they feel “sad and hopeless” was up again, now at 34 percent statewide.
Students reporting significant anxiety has increased to 52 percent. Meanwhile, 18 percent of all students surveyed seriously considered attempting suicide in the past 12 months, the highest rate since 2003.
What are we doing in our community – here in Northeast Wisconsin – to combat these troubling statistics? A lot. Is it enough? No. But we are beginning to see a glimmer of hope in our local YRBS data that could indicate our collective efforts as a community to improve youth mental health may be making a difference.
In 2021, tri-county teens reported slightly lower rates of anxiety (45 percent) and serious suicide consideration (14 percent) compared to the previous YRBS and fall below the state numbers. Self-reported depression (using “sad and hopeless” as a proxy) for our region’s teens bumped up slightly to 27 percent. The state rate, meanwhile, increased five percentage points to 34 percent.
Our community’s efforts to improve youth mental health in recent years are wide and varied. There has been a growth in school-based mental health, mental health screenings for youth, and suicide-prevention gatekeeper trainings, along with an expansion of mental health services for youth (though we are still experiencing a dire shortage of providers). And seven years ago, the Northeast Wisconsin Mental Health Connection (aka The Connection) launched its Healthy Teen Minds initiative.
In 2015, The Connection received an eight-year, $1.2 million grant from the Advancing a Healthier Wisconsin (AHW) Endowment at the Medical College of Wisconsin to improve behavioral health in our community. We developed our project to target youth and set an aspirational goal to reduce the rate of teen depression in our region by focusing on prevention, resiliency, intervention for struggling teens and improving access to care.
Fast forward seven years and our Healthy Teen Minds team is proud to have developed two successful strategies that will live on after our grant project ends in 2024. They include a region-wide implementation of Sources of Strength, an evidence-based suicide prevention and wellness program for teens, along with the development of MyConnectionNew.org, our community’s one-stop web resource for LOCAL mental health services and supports.
Over the past six years, 25 middle and high schools in the tri-county area have implemented Sources of Strength, which utilizes the power of peer social networks to change unhealthy norms and culture to ultimately prevent suicide, bullying, violence, and substance misuse, and promote mental welling being and help-seeking behavior.
Meanwhile, the MyConnectionNew.org website has made it easier for users to seek local mental health services and supports. Site traffic has grown consistently since the website was launched in 2017 to an average of 250 visits per day and the service directory has grown to include nearly 600 mental health and substance use programs and services in our region.
But there is still so much more work to be done, particularly for marginalized populations including our LGBTQ+ and BIPOC communities, who report greater mental health challenges while having fewer supports.
Top photo: Kaukauna High School students and staff at their fall 2021 Sources of Strength Peer Leader training.