Battle begins over mental health funding after Evers’ State of the State address

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) — The battle over state funding for mental health services is underway after Governor Tony Evers laid out his budget proposal Tuesday night.

He wants to spend roughly $500 million on services throughout the state after declaring 2023 the Year of Mental Health.

Groups on the ground say they’re fighting a mental health crisis every day that in some cases has life-or-death consequences. They say more money will help fund solutions, but first comes the political jockeying for position.

Abigail Swetz, Communications Director for the state’s Department of Public Instruction, said, “We need the funding. We need the budget to go through.”

Swetz said many mental health trends have been concerning for some time. In 2022 the state’s Office of Children’s Mental Health found 52% of high school students reported anxiety, 34% felt sad or hopeless every day, and 22% reported self-harm.

And the bi-annual Youth Risk Behavior Survey of Wisconsin children showed concerning suicide trends: nearly 1 of every 5 high school students has seriously considered suicide. The numbers are even worse for certain subgroups.

Swetz said many students don’t feel they can seek out help. That’s partly why DPI is proposing more money for mental health resources. Swetz said, “It would get money into the hands of every district, no matter the size, starting with enough even for the smallest district in our state. Starting with enough for at least one mental health professional to be in that district.”

In the past, most money has been available through grants. But this proposal would make the money available whether or not districts applied for it. It would also scale up depending on the size of the district.

DPI is one of dozens of organizations that would split a sizeable chunk of funding under Governor Evers’ budget proposal.

In Tuesday’s State of the State address, Evers said, “We’ll be making an overall investment of about $500 million to expand access to mental and behavioral health services for folks across our state.”

But Assembly Speaker Robin Vos controls the purse strings. He plans to ignore the dollar amounts Evers proposed and instead start from scratch. In response to Evers’ address, Vos said Tuesday, “As you know, all of Governor Evers’ ideas will probably be tossed aside like we always do, and we’ll start over.”

Vos indicated he supports many of the programs Evers wants to fund, and is willing to consider others, but only after a tax cut.

Abigail Swetz said DPI is eager to work with the legislature, and sees hope on the horizon despite the troubling trends. “People are waking up to this being a problem. It’s been a problem for far too long and we’ve reached a crisis level.”

The recommended ratio for mental health professionals to patients is 250 to 1, but Wisconsin falls well below at 440 to 1. And in some counties, there are as many as 13,000 people for every one mental health professional.

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