MILWAUKEE — A local business leader, whose younger brother died by suicide, is making it his life's work to make sure every child and family have access to a mental health professional.
Former Fiserv Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Jeff Yabuki, donated $20 million to Children's Wisconsin - the largest single donation the hospital has ever received - to expand mental health offerings. It is a statewide effort to “change the checkup.”
The money will bring mental and behavioral health care teams, including at least 36 full-time master’s-trained therapists, into every Children’s Wisconsin primary care office and urgent care location, as part of the largest-scale implementation in any pediatric setting in the nation.
This comes as demand for mental health support is at its highest level ever, according to Children's Wisconsin.
“I miss my brother every single day,” Yabuki said. “We were very close.”
Craig Yabuki died by suicide in 2017. He was a husband and father, who appeared to have it all.
“He was smart, fun, ambitious, good looking and athletic,” Yabuki said. “We sometimes have these images of people who are struggling, as not vibrant or part of mainstream society, but that is not the case at all. In retrospect, we saw the signs. He was displaying symptoms of anxiety and depression as a child. But they never got treated, because in the 1970’s no one talked about it. Later in life, he tried to get help. But one day his pain outweighed his hope.”
Yabuki started the Yabuki Family Foundation in Craig's honor. The goal is to destigmatize mental health care and make it more accessible at younger ages. The pandemic increased the need nationwide, and put a spotlight on mental health, but there is a severe shortage of help.
The average wait time for children and teens in our area to get in with a therapist is six months to one year.
“More than 50 percent of all mental and emotional issues show themselves before the age of 12, but they are not treated for another 12 years on average,” Yabuki said. “That’s a long time for that to manifest.”
That is where the Craig Yabuki Mental Health Walk-In Clinic at Children's Wisconsin comes in. It offers immediate emergency services for children in need of mental health support. As a more preventative measure, the Yabuki Family Foundation is making sure every routine checkup with Children’s Wisconsin pediatricians statewide comes with a mental health evaluation and chance to meet with a therapist on site.
“I cannot tell you how many people have randomly stopped me while I am walking down the street, or in the dog park or a restaurant and say thank you for what you’re doing at Children’s Wisconsin,” said Yabuki. “They often share their own stories of people they know who have dealt with mental health issues. It would not be an exaggeration to tell you I have heard hundreds of stories. Everyone is affected in some way. It is so heartwarming to know that out of a personal tragedy for my family, something great has emerged.”
Nicole Piskula is among those who want to thank him. She noticed her 10-year-old son, Noah, had been struggling a bit and did not know what to do.
“This was just a huge gift to humanity in general just to have a program like this,” she said. “The pandemic was hard for so many of us. I knew my son was feeling down and anxious. He was having a tough time focusing.”
Just by calling Noah's pediatrician, Nicole was immediately connected to Behavioral Health Consultant Kate Bennett, who is working in that primary care office, thanks to the Yabuki Family Foundation donation.
“Seventy percent of our schedules are same day availability for families in our primary care clinics to be able to see us right away,” Bennett said. “We get to see kids as part of their annual checkups and let families know we are there as a resource.”
“I can call and tell her he’s having a tough day, and she can make time for him that day,” Nicole said. “That is amazing. She shares options and coping mechanisms with us. She is really educated me on how to help him.”
“Talking to her, feels like talking to my mom or dad,” said Noah Piskula. “It is not weird. She is cool. She plays games with me.”
Together, Kate has worked with Noah to recognize and rise above tough emotions, and build mental health breaks into each day.
"It helps a lot,” Noah said. “I take breaks and do puzzles or go play outside. I love playing sports. It helps clear my brain when I am feeling down or overwhelmed.”
It is an example of normalizing getting help early, talking about mental health, and preventing challenges from escalating down the road.
“It is about giving kids and parents skills and strategies,” Bennett said. “We also can connect with their schools, teachers, and social workers. This is crucial, because we are seeing increases in anxiety and depression for kids that are young. Even starting around ages four and five.”
“To other kids out there, I would just say that they should definitely go ask for help if they felt like I did,” Noah said. “Definitely just be truthful.”
For Yabuki, that is what it is all about, and he knows his brother is proud.