Breaking Barriers: Youth Mental Health

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EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (WEAU) -- It's a lot easier to talk about our physical health but talking about mental health can be much more challenging, especially when it comes to kids.

New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the number of children and teens in the U.S. who visited emergency rooms for suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts has doubled.

As the number of kids facing mental health problems grows, so does the need for more programs and therapists. In a special report, WEAU’s Tajma Hall takes a look at what's being done in the Chippewa Valley and the barriers left to overcome.

In a recent community health survey, local health officials say data shows youth are struggling with increased rates of depression, anxiety, and for some even self-harm.

One area teen says in just sixth grade, she tried to take her own life. She's now sharing her story of recovery in hopes of helping kids and adults in the area tackle such a tough issue.

"My experience with mental health started when I was in 6th grade and that's when I really started struggling with anxiety and depression," said Arlene Vance.

Arlene’s mother Helen says she remembers seeing Arlene struggle. "I didn't sleep because I was worried that she would do something and I wasn't awake and I wanted to be there for her," said Helen Vance.

With no clear understanding of what she was feeling or going through, Arlene says when she was in sixth grade she attempted to take her life. "It was an attempt to kind of end that feeling of its never going to get better," said Arlene.

Thankfully things did get better for Arlene. She started therapy and learned ways to cope. Parents also play a big part in their child's mental health. But Arlene's mom says knowing just how to help your child can be a challenge. "It was really hard in the beginning because I didn't know she was going through it and it was hard to understand what she was going through," said Helen.

Arlene says people can be any age when they experience mental health. “Kids don't have to go through a really big stressful or traumatic situation. Sometimes it's just how their brain works," said Arlene.

Community Health Educator, Laura Baalrud at HSHS St. Joseph's Hospital says focusing on youth is a big part of the mental health services they provide.

"A lot of mental health disorders present themselves in youth. As a matter of fact half of all mental health disorders present symptoms by the age of 14 and three quarters by the age of 25,” said Baalrud.

Because of this, she says turning attention to how mental health is addressed within local schools is important. "What we see and I think this is across the country is more and more students coming forward and asking for help with mental health issues particularly with depression and feelings of anxiety and how can they cope with that," said Dr. Mary Ann Hardebeck, Eau Claire Area School District Superintendent.

Dr. Hardebeck says the district is working on providing training to staff to help better educate them on how to assist students.

The Chippewa Falls Unified School District is also tackling mental health treatment.

"We had three students that completed suicide within three years and so our community of Chippewa Falls has been significantly impacted by that...we have had significant trauma and tragic events happen to us throughout this school year," said Jamie Ganske, Mental Health Coordinator for Chippewa schools.

Ganski says the district is making strides. "Within the last five years, we have started spending a lot more time creating these programs and trying to find better ways to support both students and staff in mental health," she said.

The district started with school based mental health, partnering with an agency to bring community therapists directly into the schools. Ganski says the number of student utilizing this service continues to grow. “Over the last couple of years we were averaging about 105 students that were utilizing it each year...this year we're already at about 118 to 120 students," she said.

The district is taking things a step further to address barriers many families face like how to pay for mental health services. This year the district started an assistance program called Cardinal Care.

"Each of our students or any of their family members have access to four free counseling sessions and that’s four free per family which has been heavily used this school year," said Ganski.

Ganski says partnering with community agencies and inviting therapists into the schools has been successful but that there are still barriers to be broken.

She says there is such a high need for support that community therapists are getting booked up. “There are not enough community therapists to go around for everyone in every school district,” said Ganski.

Dr. Hardebeck says having enough people to provide those services is something we need to keep working on, as a district and a community.

After years of treatment and focus, Arlene is doing well and will soon be starting college. She is now dedicated to breaking the stigma of mental health and educating youth about how to take care of themselves. She uses social media to do so.

"I use social media especially Instagram to connect with other kids and raise awareness --- so they know that they're not alone," she said.

Arlene says in general the stigma around mental health must end, especially when it comes to males.
All in all, students, school officials, mental health experts, and parents agree that tackling the issue is going to take a continued team effort.