Meeting the Social and Emotional Health Needs of Wisconsin Teens

Updated Mar 5, 2024

A year after ambulance sirens and overflowing hospitals marked the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, public health experts realized they had a second, silent epidemic on their hands: adolescent mental health.

In April 2021, Megan Moreno, MD, MSEd, MPH, saw it playing out in the clinics at UW Health.

“In the past year, our adolescent medicine clinic volume doubled, and twice as many patients were admitted to the hospital as the year before,’’ said Moreno, who is now interim chair of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. “The mental health care waiting lists were longer, and that doesn’t even scratch the surface of the kids who could use more support and aren’t even trying to get it.”

Meanwhile, the American Family Children’s Hospital saw its inpatient psychiatry admissions surge, with the largest volume coming from patients with suicidal ideation.

At the time of the “silent” crisis, Moreno was a member of the Oversight and Advisory Committee (OAC) of the Wisconsin Partnership Program (WPP). She helped craft a response, with the WPP delivering $1.6 million in grants to Wisconsin community groups who work with adolescents.

Moreno explained that the social lockdown and school shutdowns that marked the pandemic’s first year disrupted some of the important work of adolescence.

“The big tasks of adolescence are to develop autonomy from your parents, to build peer support structures and to craft a separate identity,’’ she said. “But it’s harder to develop your identity if you can’t leave your house and it’s harder to connect with friends when you can’t see your friends.”

Thus, the eight community grants awarded by the OAC went to projects designed to foster a sense of community and agency in teens. They also boosted knowledge of adolescent social and emotional health in groups already working with teens. The grants helped boost:

  • Compassion resilience training offered by the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s southeast chapter. The group helped parents and other caregivers develop listening skills to support youth with mental illness and to avoid compassion fatigue. They also worked with Milwaukee’s Core El Centro to train Spanish-speaking group facilitators.
  • Leadership training and mental health advocacy skills in LGBTQ+ teens and their peers, through training offered by GSafe and PATCH.
  • Bilingual group therapy for teens at the Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers in Milwaukee.

Despite new data from the Centers for Disease Control showing concerning levels of depression symptoms and suicidal thoughts, especially among girls and LGBTQ+ teens, Moreno is optimistic about Gen Z overcoming the pandemic’s silent crisis.

“Gen Z is the most diverse and intersectional generation we’ve ever seen,’’ she said. “Their brains are still plastic, and I believe they will come out of this better, faster and stronger than those of us with fully developed brains, as long as we provide the support to contextualize what happened and the agency for them to be part of the solution.”

Learn how the following featured projects are using COVID-19 Response funding from WPP to meet the social and emotional health needs of diverse adolescent communities across the state.

Selected Highlights:

Providers and Teens Communicating for Health (PATCH)

Amy Olejniczak has been recruiting students for the Providers and Teens Communicating for Health (PATCH) program since 2010, so she noticed when the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly changed teens’ health concerns.

“In the 2020-21 group, every single one of the 30 people interviewed mentioned mental health as their number one issue,’’ Olejniczak said. “We saw a fierce turnaround in what they wanted to talk about, whether it was their own mental health or how to get help for a friend. We think it reflects that isolation was really a big deal for youth.”

With help from a Wisconsin Partnership Program grant, PATCH has been able to offer two classes of youth fellows – 11 the first school year and 13 this year – training in how to advocate for better social and emotional health for themselves and their peers.

The program, which runs the length of the school year, brought teens from around Wisconsin  together in person for a group orientation, then had them meet every other week on Zoom, where they learned about adolescent health topics – ranging from ableism and addiction to historical trauma and disinformation – from state and national experts.

They also got to serve as “experts” themselves, consulting on best practices for reaching people their age. They offered feedback to Youth Catalytics, which is studying COVID’s impact on young people, to the American Academy of Pediatrics, on how youth get health information, and to the Department of Public Instruction, on its suicide prevention curriculum.

We saw a fierce turnaround in what they wanted to talk about, whether it was their own mental health or how to get help for a friend.

– Amy Olejniczak

Suzannah Kirchner, a senior from Madison, said it felt empowering to give advice on suicide prevention. Her group suggested including more resources on peer-to-peer support, and on respite care options for mental health.

Kirchner is working on a final project for PATCH, a database on local mental health resources that people in crisis can contact before they call in the police. She met with a Madison Police Department representative who was excited about the project.

“PATCH also helps you develop your own skills,’’ said Kirchner, who plans to attend the University of Maryland’s Global Campus to study homeland security and terrorism. “It taught me to be more assertive and more of a leader and gave me skills to go confidently into the future.”

Akhil Pidikiti, a senior at Sussex-Hamilton, said that his final project integrates more information on eating disorders into the school curriculum on nutrition.

“I’d like to see reduced stigma around eating disorders,’’ said Pidikiti, who will attend UW–Madison and hopes to become a pediatrician. “I know classmates who struggle with these issues.”

Despite the bad news recently on teen mental health, both students said that PATCH felt like being part of a solution.

“PATCH gives me hope of making the world a better place, just by seeing people who care and feel such empathy for people with mental health issues,’’ Pidikiti said.

Kirchner agreed, adding, “It was very healing for me to be around such loving, caring people who want to do more about mental health. I have no doubt we’ll continue to spread the light on this topic.”

Gay Straight Alliance for Safe Schools (GSAFE)

Being stuck at home during the pandemic was hard on all adolescents, but isolation led to especially terrible mental health disparities for LGBTQ+ youth.

Brian Juchems, co-executive director of Gay Straight Alliance for Safe Schools (GSAFE), said that one study showed that during the pandemic 75 percent of LGBTQ+ youth received emotional abuse from their families (compared with 50 percent of others). And 20 percent of LGBTQ+ youth suffered physical abuse at home, compared to 10 percent of non-LGBTQ+ peers.

A recent CDC study showed that almost 70 percent of  LGBTQ+ youth reported symptoms of depression and nearly 25 percent attempted suicide in 2021.

A grant from Wisconsin Partnership Program allowed GSAFE to begin a state Youth Advisory Council, to train LGBTQ+ teens in leadership, so they can be strong voices for affirming and inclusive schools. GSAFE also hired Tyrone Creech, Jr. to head the youth leadership program.

In this past year, we had the highest ever number of requests for help from schools.

– Brian Juchems

“Being trapped at home 24/7 can lead to some unhappy thoughts,’’ Creech said. “ Even if school isn’t the greatest place, being stuck at home with families who may not be supportive is worse. And these kids had everything canceled, from proms to graduation, so being at home was crippling.”

In its first year, the leadership program had 73 teens from around Wisconsin apply for 12 slots. The students submitted written essays and interviewed online during the height of the pandemic. And the first in-person retreat was canceled by the surge of the Delta variant.

But now the second group of students is settling into a routine that involves weekly Zoom meetings and three in-person retreats a year. The students also serve as peer mentors during the annual Leadership Training Institute, or LTI, held each summer and is designed to help students take their leadership skills back home with them.

The leadership is especially needed now, Juchems said, since the pandemic and subsequent teacher resignations have threatened the existence of many school-based, student-led gender and sexuality alliance clubs (GSAs) around the state.

“There had been 250 plus GSAs around the state, but during the pandemic, educators were under so much stress that some of  the GSAs fell by the wayside,’’ Juchems said. “We’re trying to rebuild a network of advisors and organizations.”

“In this past year, we had the highest ever number of requests for help from schools,’’ he said. “We’re hearing from concerned educators who want to hold onto to the best practices for supporting LGBTQ+ youth.”

Juchems said the WPP grant allowed GSAFE to be responsive at a time when LGBTQ+ allies in the schools need support.

“We’re excited to launch a project to help educators work with families who aren’t ready to support their trans and nonbinary children,’’ he said. What’s more, the youth leadership council supported by the WPP grant went out and got its own grant to develop resources around self-care and mental health.

“If you’re being told you shouldn’t exist 24/7, it takes a toll on you,’’ Creech said. “They’re being attacked on all fronts at all times.”

Juchems agreed, adding, “Collectively, we need to do more to embrace our students with love and support.’’

The La Crosse System of Care (SOC)

The La Crosse System of Care (SOC) began as a partnership between the School District of La Crosse and La Crosse County Human Services in 2016 to address both a high juvenile arrest rate and the disparities facing young people of color in a majority white community.

Bridget Todd-Robbins, who runs the SOC, says that youth identifying as Black were facing tremendous educational and legal disparities, including being arrested at a rate 8 times higher than white teens.

“With the COVID-19 pandemic those disparities we were already seeing – school attendance, academic performance – became even more glaring,’’ she said.

What the teens needed were more positive Black mentors who could help them navigate a pandemic on top of the existing racism they were experiencing. A grant from the Wisconsin Partnership Program allowed them to contract with a Black-owned non-profit, Hope Restores, to hire two mentors to work with youth ages 10 to 18.

The mentorships, which began in the summer of 2021, opened up a world of opportunities for the teens.

With the COVID-19 pandemic those disparities we were already seeing – school attendance, academic performance – became even more glaring.

– Bridget Todd-Robbins

During the summer of 2022, there were weekly field trips for the youth and their mentors.  Students also learned about budgeting while shopping for back-to-school clothes and completed workbooks on social emotional learning.

One new experience involved was paddleboarding for the first time on the Mississippi.

“People said the kids wouldn’t like paddleboarding, but they loved it so much we had a hard time getting them off the water,’’ she said.

During the school year, mentors help with more mundane tasks, such as driving kids to school. Mentors come to La Crosse Logan High School once a week with pizzas, and the weekly lunch has become a social event that attracts other students and fosters feelings of belonging at school.

While attendance has improved dramatically, Todd-Robbins said, “there has also been a significant shift around relationships. I can walk into schools, and kids come up and give me a hug or want to talk. They reach out to mentors if they need help with anything.”

Several programming gaps were identified through this work. Mentors created a program to help teens practice interviewing and job-related skills to help the youths become more employable. A travel basketball team for high school males was also created in partnership with the YMCA that offered weekend tournaments. The basketball team has been a huge hit with teens who have ball skills, but lack the grades or emotional regulation to be in high school sports. The players consistently showed up for weekly practices and 6am on Saturday mornings to catch the bus to tournaments. Todd-Robbins said, “we did see an improvement in school attendance and academics because of this program.”

When the grant ends, one important lesson will live on.  La Crosse County now funds two social service specialist positions who will continue to support youth; these positions allowed for more flexibility around education and professional experience requirements.

“We really saw the strength of lived experience in our mentors,’’ she said. “In order to be effective with youth, it takes skills and an engaging personality. We needed to embrace that.”

View the full list of COVID-19 Response Adolescent Social and Emotional Health Grant recipients.

By Susan Lampert Smith