Conference on Youth Mental Health Strikes Hopeful Notes

Coupled with an understanding of the seriousness of the issues, there was a sense of overall hopefulness at a conference on March 22 at Marquette Law School on youth mental challenges, including bullying and suicide.

An audience of about 200, many of them people who work with young people with mental health issues, heard that hopefulness not only from the professionals who spoke, but from a panel of four students who deal personally with mental health issues.

The students, ranging from one working on a graduate degree in counseling to a middle school student, described how they have made progress with their own issues, even as their challenges continue. And they emphasized the benefit of being open about mental health.

“I want people to understand that they’re not alone and I want people to listen to us,” said Amaii Collins, a student at Milwaukee Rufus King International Baccalaureate School.

Alexandra Schmidt, a Marquette University student, told the audience, “A lot of the problem with mental health is that people don’t understand.” She said conversation is a big step toward improvement. She said she used to keep her problems with anxiety and obsessive compulsive behavior to herself, but she now believes she can help others by being an example of openness.

Melissa Holt, a professor in counseling psychology at Boston University, said that the conference itself was a positive sign. In a keynote conversation, she was asked by Mike Gousha, Marquette Law School’s distinguished fellow in law and public policy, if mental health problems among young people were just part of the world we live in or if it’s possible to get a handle on helping.

“I would like to think we can get a handle on it,” Holt said. She said the conference was a hopeful example of people working together. “We have journalists and we have the children’s hospital and we have a law school and a school of education and youths and providers,” she said. “I think that’s an example of saying, if we can mobilize together, I think this can be addressed.”

In comments summarizing the morning-long conference at its conclusion, Holt said that throughout the discussion, including three panel discussions, there was a recognition of the importance of providing young people, in school and elsewhere, with positive climates where adults are supportive and students can go to trusted adults to discuss their most important issues.

Holt said that research indicated that there had been some declines in recent years in the level of mental health issues among youths, including improving the picture for bullying and suicide prevention, but the improvements had been fairly small. Research supports the value of such programs as anti-bullying education, provided they are part of the continuing culture of a school and not -short-term campaigns, and programs are done with fidelity, Holt said.

“We know if we intervene early on. that can lead to different trajectories for kids,” Holt said. “The earlier we can intervene the better.”

While discussion during the event including attention to the need for more resources for help such as increasing the number of counselors in schools, Holt said that it often doesn’t cost anything to provide a caring atmosphere.

A panel of educators described the challenges they face in helping kids day to day, along with some of the things that are bringing good results. Alan Burkard, a professor at the Marquette College of Education who specializes in training counselors, said the ratio of students to counselors in Wisconsin schools in general is about 450 to 1, which is higher than levels recommended by experts. In addition, he said, he was concerned about how much time counselors have to spend on paper work and administrative duties and not on helping students directly.

In a panel discussion involving politicians and policy advocates, a Republican and a Democrat who are members of the Wisconsin State Assembly found areas of agreement on the need to do better for young people, but expressed some differences.

Rep. LaKeshia Myers (D-Milwaukee) put the spotlight on the need to overhaul youth corrections policy by replacing the state juvenile prisons in northern Wisconsin. Rep. Joan Ballweg (R-Markesan) spotlighted the benefit of good early childhood programs. But each gave the state some positive marks for improving its work in areas that relate to the well-being of young people.

Joanne Juhnke, policy director for a non-profit organization, Wisconsin Family Ties, said the state’s efforts to help young people with mental health are “siloed” across different agencies. “Wisconsin does not truly have a children’s mental health system of care,” she said. “We don’t have all of the pieces put together in a system.” Juhnke said, “There are major opportunities to work on that cross-siloing. What would a system that was all working together look like from the ground up?”

The conference was presented by Marquette Law School, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and the Marquette College of Education. The USA TODAY Network in Wisconsin, which includes the Journal Sentinel, has focused a major reporting project called “Kids in Crisis” on youth mental issues.

Video of the conference may be viewed by clicking here.

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