MILWAUKEE — Wisconsin school-based mental health programs are on the rise, amid the mental health crisis across the nation.
Mental Health America reported that more than 16% of kids ages 12 to 17 reported at least one major depressive episode last year.
When compared to other states in the study, Wisconsin had fewer adults who said their mental health needs were going unmet.
More adults are seeking treatment and fewer students are being reported for emotional disturbances within their individual education program.
There is also evidence from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that kids are struggling.
It found 67% of high school students reported schoolwork as being more difficult. Abuse is another factor, with 55% reporting they’d experienced some emotional abuse in the home and 11% reporting they’d experienced physical abuse.
In the recent State of Mental Health in America report, Wisconsin ranked number one overall in the U.S. for mental health. It ranked number four in mental health for kids.
This is reflected in the many Wisconsin schools that have brought in school-based mental health programming.
REDgen, which stands for “Resilience through education for a new generation,” is one of those programs. It started in 2013 and has been growing over the past few years as mental health needs increase in youth.
REDgen started after a handful of suicides in one community. The program’s goal has been to help kids tackle mental health issues at schools across Milwaukee County.
High school can be an exciting time for many teens.
But for high school junior Jariel Ramos, it hasn’t always been easy.
“It’s definitely hard to be a high schooler, but we make the most out of it,” Ramos said.
Ramos struggled with anxiety and depression throughout his first few years of high school, after his cousin died.
“I was in a dark place,” Ramos said. “Luckily, I found not only REDgen, but I found people who related to me, who knew the struggles that I had, and I knew I wasn’t alone.”
Ramos isn’t alone. According to the Coalition for Expanding School-Based Mental Health in Wisconsin, nearly half of Wisconsin high school students report anxiety. More than one fourth, feel depressed.
When it comes to self-harm, Wisconsin ranked among the top five states in the nation for intentional self-harm claims from ages six to 22.
“We just talk about it like it’s normal now,” Ramos said. “I mean, everyone talks about if they are going to therapy or going to the counseling center to talk about something.”
Suzanne Lovinus has been a counselor at Pius XI Catholic High School for 37 years. It’s a job she said she loves and is proud to be doing.
“It’s not rare for our students to talk to us for the first time, sometimes some of the things they are feeling, experiencing, trying to navigate in their own mind, before they tell other people, including their family members,” Lovinus said.
While Lovinus said she’s seen an increase in the number of students needing help, she’s also seen an increase in students feeling comfortable asking for help.
She said she thinks having REDgen integrated into the school system has something to do with that.
REDgen is in 21 Wisconsin schools. It’s just one of the many examples of school-based mental health programming available in the state.
Nearly 40 Milwaukee Public Schools have also integrated school-based mental health programming. REDgen allows students and staff to meet once a week and tackle different topics. They try to make mental health awareness a common topic of discussion at school, and to get other kids in need connected with adults who can help.
REDgen Executive Director Lisamarie Arnold said the main goal of their programming is peer-to-peer support.
“Students will talk to students,” Arnold said. “But now they know how to talk to students. They are recognized as leaders in their school community, so people will go to them and will talk to them.”
Ramos has been a part of REDgen for a few years now. Through his time in the group, he has been able to become a leader for the school.
“I’ve seen the way REDgen has moved in my life,” Ramos said. “I’ve taken the things that I have learned here that are close to my heart, and I have brought them out in every facet in life. It’s changed how I see things, how I perceive things.”
Ramos has been able to share what he’s learned with other students and has even brought the topic of mental health awareness to the hallways of his high school.