Morning Zen Guest blogger ~ Ashley Staeck
The Children’s Mental Health system in Racine, Wisconsin is not unlike systems in communities throughout the country: There are unaddressed needs, major barriers to access, poor coordination of available services, service shortages, and limited funding opportunities for needed programs to support the mental health needs of children and youth. One thing that makes Racine a unique community, however, is what the community decided to do about these challenges. With no shiny coin or funds promised at the end of their planning sessions to bring people together, community members volunteered their time to address one of the biggest, underlying issues affecting the entire Racine community. The result includes seven game-changing recommendations the community is already in the process of implementing that should move the needle on improving the mental health outcomes of children in Racine.
Racine is a city nestled on the beautiful shores of Lake Michigan, sandwiched in between two metropolitan cities, Milwaukee and Chicago. It is a microcosm of our metropolitan neighbors to the north and south, where issues like children’s mental health can go unaddressed and major improvements need to be made in order to alleviate suffering and optimize the health and well-being of the children growing up here. In 2008, after hearing the issue raised in multiple contexts without any coordinated action, the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread did some investigating over a six-month time frame to better understand what exactly was going on. The findings from that research were published in a whitepaper called Top of Mind: Children’s Mental Health in Racine -- Highlighting facts and uncovering urgent needs. The report called out four key challenges facing our community when it comes to children’s mental health:
- Poor system and service coordination
While many mental health resources exist in the Greater Racine area, they are disconnected, fragmented and lack coordination.
- Multiple barriers to access care
For those who seek care, there are multiple barriers to access. These barriers range from the high cost of care to a lack of transportation. Families struggle with competing demands on caregivers, language barriers, a lack of clarity on how to access care, and even the stigma associated with seeking out mental health services.
- High service costs and limited funding
The high cost of care means treatment is sometimes not an option for those individuals and families who live without insurance, have plans with high co-pays, or experience an interruption in insurance coverage. Meanwhile, insufficient state and local funding for children’s mental health services severely limits access to and options for care even for families with affordable mental health coverage.
- Workforce and service shortage
Throughout the mental health community, providers are becoming more and more scarce. The community is especially lacking in providers who specialize in children’s mental health care. The provider shortage stretches available resources and adds to already lengthy waiting lists for first time appointments.
Many of these same issues play out every day in communities throughout the country, but one thing that makes Racine unique, is what happened next. After having an opportunity to come together in the fall of 2012, area policemen, teachers, social workers, counselors, faith leaders, doctors, and judges committed to actively addressing and improving the mental health needs of local kids. The group spent the first six months learning about the problem and agreeing on which pieces of the problem they thought they should and could feasibly address. The next year, the group focused solely on solutions: What can we imagine that could address our problems? What have others done? What’s currently being done? How can we learn from them? Out of all of the possibilities, which ideas would have the greatest impact and can feasibly be implemented?
They did all of this without a commitment from an outside funder to fund their final ideas. They did this out of sheer passion for the issue and commitment to do whatever it would take to help struggling children and their families. This was more easily accomplished because of the commitment and engagement of many individuals in the community, at all different levels of decision-making and with different perspectives/worldviews. The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread, a neutral stakeholder, also committed staff time and ongoing meeting support (space, food, materials) to help manage the effort and move it along.
Last June, the Racine Collaborative for Children’s Mental Health released its eight game-changing recommendations to improve the mental health outcomes of children in Racine:
- A 24/7 phone line to connect families to the right service
- In-school mental health services
- Screening for early detection
- Education for teachers and parents
- Community-wide, anti-stigma campaign
- Care organizers to help families develop and follow a plan
- Children’s Mental Health Network to link providers and referrers
- Lunch-and-learn sessions to educate pediatricians and nurse practitioners
Many of these are not new ideas in the world, but their implementation would be brand new to Racine, and our community will hopefully see brand new improvements in child and community outcomes. The Collaborative didn’t just release a set of recommendations, but has begun implementing its ideas. In October, the first set of mental health literacy trainings were given to area elementary schools. This fall, the first pilot of a school-based mental health program will be available to local students and families. In addition, the phone line is up and running, care organizers are in place, and lunch-and-learns have been in session for the last year. You can learn more about our work at www.healthyracinekids.org as well as check out some of the presentations given by experts on different community solutions at www.johnsonfdn.org.
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Ashley Staeck joined the Johnson Foundation in 2011 as program associate in the community program where she helps guide the Foundation’s work with the Greater Racine Community. During her tenure, Ashley spearheaded the creation of a new community collaborative focused on addressing the unmet mental health needs of children. The new initiative brings together a diverse group of community leaders committed to relieving unnecessary suffering and optimizing opportunities for children to enjoy fulfilling and productive lives.