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

With a new school year underway, Wisconsin schools face challenges in addressing mental health concerns amid staffing shortages and increased demands for care.
Updated: Sep. 12, 2022 at 9:00 PM CDT
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SAUK PRAIRIE, Wis. (WMTV) - With a new academic year underway, many Wisconsin schools continue to face uphill battles in addressing mental health concerns amid staffing shortages and increased demands for care.

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

“We know that there are a lot of children and adults too who need mental health care but are on waiting lists that may be six months or longer. To navigate the health care system, to get access to mental health is far too difficult, especially in rural parts of the state. We’re no different,” said Jeff Wright, Superintendent of the Sauk Prairie School District.

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

Wright said some larger school districts in the state have already seen success using this service and he is hopeful that Sauk Prairie will also see positive results. “We’re excited about bringing that sort of opportunity to our students as well, knowing that we can’t do it all under this roof,” expressed Wright.

Sauk Prairie Middle School Counselor, Mindy Breunig, said addressing mental health needs to be a community effort. “Our teachers and our administrators and our custodians and our lunch people. We want all people in the building keeping an eye on our kids and working together,” she explained.

This new school year marks her 20th year working in education, and she knows that addressing students’ mental health concerns is an ever-evolving task, but earning their trust is always her first hurdle. “Students aren’t going to come to you if they don’t feel comfortable. Being visible from the beginning and establishing those relationships is going to extremely important,” Breunig continued.

Not every school district in Wisconsin is able to approach the new school year with as much confidence in their mental health resources.

Data from Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction shows one in five students will face a mental health issue and its website states that “over 80 percent of incidents go untreated. For those who do receive treatment, roughly 75 percent of the time it’s administered at school.”

This comes as the number of mental health professionals working in schools is shrinking across the nation.

“We’re feeling those shortages. We hear from principals and superintendents and special education directors pretty regularly asking how do we find a school psychologist? How do we provide these supports and services if we don’t have a school social worker?” said Tim Peerenboom, a School Psychology Consultant with Wisconsin DPI.

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

With so many unfilled jobs, Peerenboom explained that the ratios of students to mental health staff is overwhelming for many districts. “When mental health professionals aren’t able to focus on providing the services that we’re trained and experienced to do then students lose out, they’re not accessing those services, and professionals burn out, because they’re feeling like they’re not getting to do the job that they know they can do really well,” explained Julie Incitti, a School Social Work Consultant with Wisconsin DPI.

DPI has competitive grants that school districts can apply for to help with funding for these positions, but Incitti said overall support from the state continually falls short of what is needed to truly remedy the problem. “I also think that school leaders can advocate on a state level for more funding for school mental health professionals. Right now, we have a Categorical Aid Program that provides partial reimbursement but only for school social workers and DPI has tried to have that increased to include school counselors and school psychologists as well,” said Incitti.

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

“We actually have our highest number of applicants ever! Last year we had over 150 graduate students apply to our PhD and EdS degree program in School Psychology. We have an extremely competitive program and we would love to accept more students than we are able to each year,” said Eklund in a statement emailed to NBC15.

Dr. Eklund added that the number of educators in this field is also strong. “There are not decreasing numbers of faculty. There are actually more faculty positions available now (and being accepted) than there were 10 years ago. School psychology currently has over 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 practicum students and interns alongside school psychologists in local schools. Together, they provide individual and small group mental health support to children and youth as well as provide schoolwide social emotional learning, trauma-informed care, and crisis response services within schools.”

When asked for her opinion on how the current shortage of mental health employees in schools could be combatted, Dr. Eklund suggested that “the Wisconsin legislature could offer loan forgiveness programs to school psychologists who elect to stay in the state of Wisconsin after graduation (similar to the teacher pledge program that is offered by the UW-Madison School of Education for teacher ed candidates).”

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

This sentiment was echoed by DPI officials, with Peerenboom stating that, “there’s always a question of if they are paid enough. As a school psychologist or social worker, you go to a lot of school and you’re a graduate level professional and a lot of school districts don’t 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 school districts:

  • Create positive working cultures with staff appreciation incorporated.
  • Support staff in having a work-life balance.
  • Give staff more breaks with calming spaces to do so.