Guest Column from Rep. Jim Steineke
Steineke Expands Children’s Access to Mental Health Services
Word Count: 505

As the father of three kids, I know that we as parents like to think we’re always in the know. And in many ways, we are. But I also know that without hovering over our kids during every single hour of the day, there are bound to be things we miss. The truth is, on average in Wisconsin, kids spend over 40% of their waking hours at school during the school year. And our teachers, administrators, counsellors, and school nurses will be the first to tell you that during those school hours, a lot can happen.

Here’s another fact: at least 1 in 5 school-aged children is affected by a mental health condition. And unfortunately, many times our school districts – the places our kids are spending 40% of their time – do not feel properly prepared to deal with the many nuances mental health issues can bring. Knowing how crucial it is to address mental health concerns as early as possible, this was a worrying revelation.

In 2013, I introduced a bill to create the Child Psychiatry Consultation Program (CPCP), which aimed to address the lack of access to youth mental health resources in many parts of Wisconsin by connecting pediatricians with trained child psychiatrists. Since its implementation in 2015, it has been incredibly successful. What if we could expand this resource to our schools, so not just patients at the doctor, but also students in our classrooms, could see the benefits of real-time access to mental health professionals?

I approached Medical College of Wisconsin, who operates the CPCP, to see if creating a school-based mental health pilot program would be a possibility. Not long after, we were holding meetings with local school districts, surveying teachers, nurses, counselors, and administrators on the challenges and needs they’re facing, and drafting legislation to get this resource directly into our schools. Through our research and meetings, Outagamie County proved to be the right place for a pilot program, as it contains a mixture of both rural and urban districts and has existing CPCP infrastructure to build on.

The excitement from our local schools to have another tool to use in addressing student mental health needs cannot be overstated. They were steadfast in their commitment to seeing this bill succeed, willing to hold meetings, ask the tough questions, and even come to Madison to speak on behalf of the program. Their in-depth knowledge of not only their students, but also their staff, resonated with us as lawmakers, allowing the bill to garner broad bipartisan support in both the state Assembly and Senate.

With Governor Evers’ signature, the school-based mental health pilot program is now part of Wisconsin law. With that comes additional resources to enable our schools to help students in crisis, better-equipped staff who are empowered with the tools they need to promote mental health in our children, and peace of mind for us parents that for the 40% of the day our kids spend in school, they have access to the things they need to grow and thrive.