Wisconsin ranks highest for universal mental health care

A nationwide study just ranked Wisconsin #1 for mental health — a fact that might surprise anyone who’s tried to book an appointment with a therapist lately.

Despite a shortage of therapists and wait times for mental health providers that can extend to six months and more, the study, conducted by Mental Health America, found that the Badger State still had enough highlights to outperform other states when it comes to addressing the psychological needs of residents.

Compared to other states, fewer adults in Wisconsin report that their mental health needs are not being met, more adults are seeking treatment, and fewer students are reported with their individual education program for having emotional disorders.

These facts have propelled Wisconsin to the top of the nation.

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Another possible reason for its elevated status is that Wisconsin has invested in the mental health needs of its residents, industry experts say.

Earning such a high rating surprised Martina Gollin-Graves, President and CEO of Mental Health America of Wisconsin, who attributed some of the score to Gov. Tony Evers’ administration of mental health and federal dollars the state recently received from the Coronavirus Aid Priority Relief and Economic Security and American Rescue Plan Act Dollars.

But more than that, Gollin-Graves said, it speaks to the prevalence of mental health needs in every state across the country — needs are high everywhere.

“I don’t think we’re necessarily doing things better or that our system has changed,” Gollin-Graves said. “I think the circumstances with the pandemic and the infusion of federal dollars certainly helped. But … it reflects the differences elsewhere.”

The report, released on Thursday, covers a range of interventions including adults with mental illness, youth with major depressive disorders and people with mental illness who have been unable to receive treatment due to labor shortages or lack of insurance coverage.

Wisconsin’s ranking comes at a time when more than 12 million adults in the United States reported suicidal thoughts, 16% of all youth reported having at least one major depressive disorder and near depressive disorder, according to the 2023 State of Mental Health in America Report Every adult with a substance use disorder reported not receiving treatment.

Mental Health America

Figures in Wisconsin tell a similar story: nearly 5% of residents, or 219,000 people, have reported serious suicidal thoughts, which is slightly higher than the national percentage. Fewer Wisconsin youth, 14%, reported having at least one major depressive disorder than the national percentage.

Nearly 22% of Wisconsin adults reported experiencing a mental illness, versus the national percentage of 21%.

In a press briefing organized by Mental Health America on Wednesday, Maddy Reinert, Mental Health America’s senior director of population health, said the data has obvious policy implications.

“Based on these findings, it is clear that we need to invest in this public approach to mental health, including policies that address the social determinants of mental health, and mainstream mental health promotion into all policies so that we can reduce the prevalence mental health problems inside the United States,” said Reinert.

The impact of the pandemic, said Schroeder Stribling, president and CEO of Mental Health America, has only increased mental health disorders.

“We know there has been an increase in deaths, despair, drug use, opioid overdoses, alcohol-related deaths, and (and) suicides during this time,” Stribling said Wednesday. “And that’s not specifically from this report, but it’s something we want to amplify because it adds to the sense of urgency of this moment.”

Equity issues and labor shortages are at the heart of Wisconsin’s mental health crisis

At Mental Health America of Wisconsin’s Milwaukee Clinic, federal dollars from the pandemic have allowed the small clinic to see more clients. Gollin-Graves suspects the report’s measurements have more to do with the infusion of dollars than a true reflection of access to medical care, Gollin-Graves said.

According to Gollin-Graves, Wisconsin is suffering from labor shortages “like never before,” largely due to companies being unable to keep up with the growing demand for salaries.

The report showed that for every mental health provider in the state, there are 440 consumers with potential needs. To put this in perspective, the national average is one mental health provider for every 350 consumers.

“At first we thought things would get better, but the problem is only increasing,” Gollin-Graves said. “We can’t keep up.”

Despite the No. 1 spot, a few issues make Wisconsin’s mental health crisis unique, Gollin-Graves said. A shortage of prescribing physicians is plaguing providers and consumers at the state and national levels.

“Especially now that telemedicine is an option, more and more people have access to mental health services but have access to a prescribing doctor in a timely manner — that’s one of our big challenges,” Gollin-Graves said.

But with the advent of telemedicine, Wisconsinites with limited broadband access, particularly in rural communities, are left behind, adding to ever-growing concerns about mental health equity.

These equity issues range from technology to a lack of culturally competent advisors. Not all Wisconsin communities have the same stressors, Gollin-Graves said, adding that people of color in Wisconsin are less likely to seek treatment and are more likely to die by suicide.

Financial barriers also prevent vulnerable populations from receiving treatment. According to the Mental Health America report, Hispanic adults with mental illnesses in the United States were the least likely to have health insurance, with 19% being uninsured. The uninsured rate among Hispanic adults boomed from 2017-2020, with Hispanic adults more likely to delay mental health treatment during COVID-19.

These barriers culminate in new data on Hispanic young adults from the Wisconsin Office of Children’s Mental Health, which found that 52% of Hispanic young adults in Wisconsin suffer from poor mental health and 51% of Hispanic youth live in low-income families.

Reinert, senior director of population health at Mental Health America, said expanding Medicaid has found that racial disparities in healthcare are being reduced, and this is particularly true for black and Hispanic adults.

“The expansion of Medicaid … has been associated with a significant reduction in the percentage of adults with depression who are uninsured and are delaying mental health care because of cost concerns,” Reinert said. “That’s millions of adults reporting in the US”

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Natalie Eilbert covers mental health issues for USA TODAY NETWORK-Central Wisconsin. She welcomes story tips and feedback. You can reach her at [email protected] or check out her Twitter profile at @natalie_eilbert. If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or text “Hopeline” to the National Crisis Text Line at 741-741.

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