Difficulties accessing the limited amount of mental health resources offered in the community have contributed to a "crisis" situation in local schools, according to tri-state-area education experts.

District officials don't compile statistics about students needing mental health services. But anecdotally, local educators have observed a noticeable spike in the number of students suffering from depression or other mental health crises.

"We're seeing more and more children facing mental illness and social, emotional kinds of issues -- some of them at a very serious level -- that present themselves in our classrooms in very, very difficult ways," said Nancy Bradley, director of elementary education for Dubuque Community Schools.

But with mental health care funding as tight as ever, a simple solution does not exist.

"I really think the system could work quite well if it was adequately funded," said John Bellini, vice president of Anna B. Lawther Academy at Hillcrest Family Services.

Dubuque Community School District does not collect hard data on student demand for mental health services, Bradley said. But the increased need for community resources is apparent to those who have spent time in classrooms, she said.

Bradley described mental health care services for youth as a "supply-and- demand issue."

"As our demand has come up, our supply has come down in the community," she said.

District staff do not provide mental health services for students. However, school counselors and other officials often work with parents to identify avenues through which students can access assistance.

Though local agencies -- including Hillcrest Family Services -- work diligently to provide mental health care, limited access can lead to long wait times, according to Shirley Horstman, director of student services for the district.

"If you have a child in crisis or an adult in crisis, sometimes it's three months, four months out before you can get an appointment," she said.

In the interim, the student's education -- as well as the education of his or her classmates -- can suffer.

"Sometimes it's classroom disruptions, and sometimes it's a classroom disruption at a very significant level," Bradley said. "You see the situation where the child is sort of frozen in terms of functioning within the educational setting."

Bellini said the area is actually somewhat "resource rich" when compared to other regions. However, getting to those services can be difficult, he said.

"It's an access problem," Bellini said. "A non-system kid getting access to those services can be very difficult."

Providers such as Hillcrest often work with children who are involved in an active Department of Human Services or Juvenile Court Services case. Much of the funding that providers receive often is required to be spent serving those demographics, Bellini said.

Children who need mental health care but don't have open cases often can be left behind.

"There's many families that we hear about on a daily basis that they've tried (DHS), they've tried reaching out through schools and they're getting nowhere, and their child is in need," Bellini said.

Audobon Elementary School Principal Ed Glaser has worked at the school for 20 years. Most of that time was spent in the classroom.

Glaser said awareness of mental health issues has increased in recent years, but a societal stigma remains.

"I think there's still a (stigma) that there's something wrong with me or my child if we do start talking about mental health," Glaser said. "That's a stigma; hopefully, we're starting to break down some of those issues."

ReNah Reuter, director of student achievement and intervention services with Platteville Community Schools, said Wisconsin's Badger Care program opened "a lot of doors" for parents who might not have otherwise been able to access mental health care for their children.

"We've, for the most part, been able to connect them with somebody, be it a counselor, or a therapist or a doctor, who can refer them to someone else," Reuter said.

Still, the district could benefit from more funding for staff training to work more efficiently with students who have severe mental health issues, she said.

Addressing the issue will require buy-in from the community, according to Bradley.

"This isn't something the Dubuque Community School District can fix," she said. "We're on the demand side of it. What we need is for the community to recognize the growing urgency of that demand."

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