HILLSBORO, Wis. — Connecting teens to mental health resources can be challenging, especially in rural communities. Gundersen Health Systems might have one solution in Hillsboro, Wisconsin. They've created a school-based behavioral health program.
"Teachers were saying these aren't normal growing pains. These are bigger issues that need more than what we have right now," said Linda Bisarek, an instructional coach and interventionist at Hillsboro High School.
Hillsboro is nestled in the winding rivers and abundant hills of western Wisconsin. It's a town of fewer than 1,500 people and residents there are looking to address what some call a growing mental health crisis among children.
"We are in the business of educating students and if we can't get to the algebra, if we can't get to the Shakespeare, it's pointless. So the mental piece is for us the most important part," said Bisarek.
She says a lack of mental health resources in the western part of the state has had an impact inside classrooms. She adds that getting kids to therapy appointments is not always easy when you're tucked away in rural Wisconsin.
"Part of the barrier is our location," she said.
It's a hurdle that Kristie McCoic, the administrator at Gundersen Hospital and Health Clinics in Hillsboro, noticed too.
"The problem is access due to a shortage of providers, as well as when the students have to leave school and mom and dad have to leave work, and there's insurance issues - there's a lot of barriers in place," said McCoic.
According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, 61% of areas with mental health professional shortages are in rural areas. The root of the problem? A lack of providers. So, MCoic and Gundersen Health Systems got creative.
"You learn in a rural community, the best way to grow your staff is to grow your own," said McCoic.
They created the school based behavioral health program. The health system is now finding Qualified Treatment Trainees (QTT) and placing them right into schools to provide therapy to kids.
"The families don't pay, regardless of insurance. The child can been seen, and the student doesn't have to leave school and the parent doesn't have to leave work," said McCoic.
QTTs are social workers who have earned a master's degree, but still need 3,000 supervised hours of practice to become licensed in the State of Wisconsin. Finding paid opportunities to complete those hours is hard to come by, says Alyssa Sherwood. But, she said being placed into this program has been the opportunity of a lifetime.
"Through Gundersen, they have created this exhaustive team of people who really helped me understand my style of therapy, how I interact with my clients and what population I prefer working with," said Sherwood.
Sherwood is now providing mental health care to students in three school districts in the rural part of western Wisconsin - Hillsboro, Royal and Wonewoc. The services are offered free of charge, but Sherwood is paid and she is moving closer to her goal of becoming a licensed clinical social worker.
"It's been really rewarding, and I always get kind of emotional talking about that," said Sherwood. "Just to see them have that light-bulb moment of like - I understand that now, and I am starting to process this. That's the coolest part."
Carrie Krueger oversees the program and says it's one program that could be a solution to what some are calling the rural mental health crisis - not only because it is getting help to the students, but it's also providing an opportunity to those looking to become health care providers.
She believes this is a program that all health systems and school districts in rural Wisconsin should consider.
"We are probably one of the only areas that has a program set up like this," said Krueger.
"I think it's something that other schools can do, whether you're rural or urban," said McCoic.
Those who work with the students one-on-one say it's time for policy makers to step up and ensure all parts of the state have ample access to mental health care.
"We have opportunities to go to the city, to live in a more urban environment, but we choose to stay rural. But that shouldn't be a punishment, right? We should be able to have the same kinds of resources that people in urban areas have," said Bisarek.
A small town "fix" to a far-reaching issue.