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Wisconsin youth dealing with anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicidal thoughts

Wisconsin children continue to deal with extremely concerning levels of anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicidal thoughts, especially among girls, children of color and LGBTQ youth, according to an annual report from the Office of Children’s Mental Health (OCMH). 

Key factors affecting young Wisconsinites’ mental health are academic pressure and societal issues including widespread gun violence, climate change, discrimination and deep political divisiveness, according to the report.

“The pressure to succeed, concerns about climate change, widespread gun violence, and the political divisiveness being played out at school boards, libraries, and classrooms — these stressors are cumulatively unique and unlike what any previous generation has faced,” Linda Hall, director of the Office of Children’s Mental Health, stated in a letter.

The report said that political divisiveness over LGBTQ issues can especially impact LGBTQ youth and contribute to rising rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidality. 

OCMH senior research analyst Amy Marsman said during a briefing on the report that nearly half — or 48% — of all LGBTQ youth in Wisconsin seriously considered killing themselves, which is higher than the national rate. 

The concerning statistics come during a legislative session where Republican lawmakers have proposed bills that target transgender Wisconsinites and LGBTQ youth. 

Other concerning trends factoring into youth mental health that the report highlights include a drop in the number of 4-year-olds attending preschool, fewer children participating in extracurricular activities and a doubling in the number of high school teens who vape. 

“One in 10 teens have attempted suicide, and for context, suicide is, now, the second leading cause of death among 10-to-14 year olds, so our tweens and youngest team,” Marsman said 

The number of kids ages 12–17 experiencing a major depressive episode rose from 14% about five years ago to 16% currently, according to the report. Young adults aged 18-25 who are experiencing mental illness has risen from 26% to 37%. 

The report also says that belonging and social connectedness are important factors. 

“Kids who feel they belong at their school have better attendance, academic success, and mental health. Having supportive and trusted adults is crucial to youth wellness. Rates of trusted adults at school have declined overall and are much lower for students of color,” the report states. 

According to the report, 61% of young Wisconsinites feel socially connected at school, compared to 71% about five years ago; 67% of students said they have a trusted adult at school. 

The report also pointed to several larger issues that affect families and, as a result,  children’s wellness including struggles with child care, financial insecurity, food insecurity and housing instability.

“There are evidence-based policy options that would measurably improve child well-being in Wisconsin,” Marsman said. “Investments in children zero to 5 years old — especially sustainable funding for the child care center is an investment in children’s mental health.” 

The report states that scenarios that leave families without child care cause more stress. 

“When parents are stressed, their turmoil can be absorbed by children. Often it also means less time for healthy, stable, positive interactions that are crucial for brain development — the foundation of infant/toddler mental health,” the report states. “Without adequate childcare, families suffer.”

The emphasis on child care comes as Democrats have continued to call for greater investment in the Child Care Counts program. Gov. Tony Evers recently shifted $170 million towards the program to extend the program into 2025, but without further investment the program will likely end. 

The report also said that an expansion of child tax credits, the Earned Income Tax Credit, affordable housing stock, and funding housing assistance are all investments in children’s mental health.

Nathan Zirk, a student at North Crawford High School in Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, said during the Friday briefing that he has faced mental health struggles for many years, including dealing with thoughts of self-harm and suicidality. He said that therapy and his passion for poetry have helped him through the struggles. 

Zirk acknowledged the current efforts and existing mental health programs. He also addressed legislators, saying that it’s crucial to recognize that investments in mental health are about more than the money. He said that progress will come from refining approaches and responses to the “ever evolving challenges faced by the youth.” 

“It’s also important to shift our approach towards mental health programs from patronizing individual experiences with the fluffy and bright colors to a more pragmatic focus on finding what truly works,” Zirk said. “This means the incorporation of viable and accessible solutions and addressing the diversity of individuals struggling with these mental health challenges.”

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originally published at https%3A%2F%2Fwisconsinexaminer.com%2F2024%2F01%2F16%2Fwisconsin-youth-dealing-with-anxiety-depression-self-harm-and-suicidal-thoughts%2F by Baylor Spears

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