Wisconsin children’s mental health is declining, exacerbated by pandemic, state agency says

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) — Children’s mental health is on the decline statewide, according to the Wisconsin Office of Children’s Mental Health. These problems can start at the beginning of life, but they can be addressed early on, too.

A social life is fundamental.

“We can really start to just grasp on other people’s identities and not really know who we are. And so, that can turn into a big struggle when we don’t have that social connectedness,” said Angela Barnes, a therapist for adolescents at Gundersen Health System.

The data, collected between 2018 and 2019, point to a declining trend in children’s mental health. And it’s grown after a year during which the pandemic stifled education and socialization.

“If we don’t address mental health in children, they carry that into adulthood,” said Linda Hall, director of the Wisconsin Office of Children’s Mental Health.

This decline is on pace with national trends. And here, Barnes has seen these trends locally.

“Adolescents are trying to sort out how to continue to be social when they’re being kind of cut off from school at times, and their friends at times,” Barnes said. “When they weren’t in school, we saw a lot of kids not doing that well.”

And now that they’ve lost that time, some struggle with being back.

“The one thing that would make a difference for kids is if they had better social connections,” Hall said.

This year, the department is focusing on social connectedness, a theme that builds on everything in a childs environment. Hall said that includes family, supportive adults, early education, peers and culture.

This climate is one that is formed from birth. But not everyone has every building block in their lives.

“As long as the ones we do have are healthy and robust, it offers us a lot of resiliency,” Barnes said.

Both experts told me that though there is a problem, parents can help address it early.

As life remains ever-changing with the pandemic, it’s important to regularly talk to kids and help foster those important social connections early.

The Wisconsin Office of Children’s Mental Health has emotional health resources for families and schools on its website.

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