By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — Gov. Tony Evers posed for holy pictures late last month, pulling $5 million from his federal COVID aid grab bag to help tackle what experts have described as a crisis in children’s mental health.
In Wisconsin, it’s a crisis in large part of Evers’ making.
Between his illegal COVID lockdowns and his lack of backbone in standing up to his teachers union allies, the governor presided over a government-enforced isolation state that has fueled childhood depression, anxiety and depression.
And Evers’ dysfunctional state licensing agency, sitting on a mountain of backlogged applications, has forced psychologists, social workers and other mental health care professionals to wait several months for their licenses.
At a photo-op in Appleton, the governor announced the new $5 million federal grant program to expand telehealth services. Half of the funding will go to hospitals for expanded mental health programs for children.
The grant announcement follows Evers’ “Get Kids Ahead Initiative,” which provides $15 million of federal COVID aid to Wisconsin’s schools for mental healthcare — from hiring “mental health navigators” to training and family assistance programs.
“We know our kids are struggling now more than ever. A student who is in crisis isn’t going to be able to pay attention in school, finish their homework, or engage meaningfully with their friends or teachers,” Evers said last week at Eau Claire’s Northstar Middle School.
We also know now that the extended stay-at-home orders the Evers administration issued at the outbreak of the pandemic and the lockdown policies he pushed and supported over the last two years did enormous psychological damage to Wisconsin’s kids.
“These data echo a cry for help,” CDC acting Principal Deputy Director Debra Houry, said of the findings in a press release. “The COVID-19 pandemic has created traumatic stressors that have the potential to further erode students’ mental well-being. Our research shows that surrounding youth with the proper support can reverse these trends and help our youth now and in the future.”
The study found higher rates of suicidal ideation and persistent feelings of loneliness.
Not surprising. Students were forced into failed remote learning systems and separated from their peers. While many school districts reopened to in-person learning in the fall of 2020, the state’s largest districts — Milwaukee Public Schools, Madison Metropolitan School District and others — continued to lock students out long after the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention urged the return of student to in-person learning. A raft of early studies showed the mental health damage done from the social separation and isolation was much worse than the health risks of COVID to children.
Subsequent research has only confirmed those findings.
And Evers said nothing to educrats who refused to re-open their schools. He said nothing to the state’s teachers unions, one of his biggest source of campaign donations, when they demanded schools stay closed. He insisted the decision on in-person education was a local issue, though he fought in court to keep his crushing statewide lockdowns in place and pushed illegal COVID mitigation orders depriving local governments the power to choose.
Lawmakers and parents begged the governor to do something, say something.
“Students will continue to struggle academically and emotionally from this lost time,” Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) said in early January as Madison and Milwaukee again locked their students out of classrooms and Evers remained silent. “Students are continuing to fall behind and low-income, minorities, students with disabilities, and students learning English are suffering the most.”
Meanwhile, a mental health care professional shortage plagues Wisconsin. The dearth of providers has been exacerbated by Evers’ state Department of Safety and Professional Services, where a backlog of license applications has slowed recruitment to a crawl.
As Empower Wisconsin has reported, psychiatrists, therapists, social workers, and other health professionals have waited months — in some cases a year or more — to get their credentials approved.
“Between horrendous customer service and not approving provisional licenses or psychology exams, it is clear that there are some serious problems going on with the Governor’s administration of DSPS,” said state Rep. Shae Sortwell (R-Two Rivers), chairman of the Assembly Committee on Regulatory Licensing Reform. “Wisconsin healthcare and mental health workers are waiting months (or more) to be able to provide care to our state because the Governor can’t get his department in order.”