As Wisconsin experiences a shortage in mental health services, the number of suicides has spiked, influencing advocates and leaders to raise their voices together in hopes of reducing the rate and improving access to care.
Suicides have increased by 25.8 percent from 1999, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2017, 926 people died by suicide, increasing from 855 suicides in 2016.
The increasing suicide rate is reflective of a nationwide crisis, with parallel increases of 25.4 percent nationally since 1999 — with the most at-risk group for suicide being young people.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death, just behind car accidents, for people 15 to 34 years old in Wisconsin, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
The implications of mental health in Wisconsin
According to Mental Health America, Wisconsin ranked 48th nationally for the prevalence of mental illness, and severe disparities exist in terms of access to resources and expertise in the field.
Wisconsin currently faces a significant psychiatrist shortage in 55 of its 72 counties. According to a report by the Wisconsin Policy Forum, 20 counties had no practicing psychiatrists in 2018, and 10 others had only one.
Limited access to treatment especially affects vulnerable children. Wisconsin ranks 42nd out of the 50 states and Washington D.C. in access to mental health care for children with major depression — 66.4 percent of whom do not receive treatment — according to Mental Health America.
Sen. Patty Schachtner, D-Somerset, said that many times, in areas lacking facilities, responsibility falls into police’s hands when someone is in crisis.
Due to the Chapter 51 law, those in crisis are required to be admitted to a hospital, involuntarily or voluntarily, to keep them safe. After they are released from the hospital, if there is not an appropriate health center, the patient may be turned over to the police.
“If you’re in a mental health crisis and you are danger to yourself or someone else and you’re going to have your rights taken away under Chapter 51, you’ll be stabilized at a hospital and then handcuffed and put in the back of a police car and be transferred to the other side of the state,” Schachtner said.
Gov. Tony Evers aims to support youth mental health services by including $22 million for more school mental health specialists and social workers in his state budget proposal. These mental health crisis initiatives would provide funding to specific counties in need. Expanding mental health funding is essential, according to Schachtner, because most people struggling to pay for treatment qualify for Medicaid.
However, health care options are not the only concern.
Access to lethal weapons plays a role in the rising number of suicides in the state. Seventy-two percent of total deaths involving a firearm were suicides, a study by the Wisconsin Medical Society found.
“It really is about educating people who don’t have mental health diagnoses about why it’s so important to secure guns, especially if you know someone has access to your home,” Schachtner said. “They are more likely to use someone else’s gun than their own if they are in crisis.”
Advocating for change
State leaders and advocacy groups have geared up efforts to increase support for vulnerable groups.
Majority Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, announced a new bipartisan suicide prevention task force that will make policy recommendations based on presentations from experts, people impacted by suicide loss and advocates March 6.
The task force plans to focus its attention on farmers, youth, and veterans — the most at-risk groups in the state — by looking to other states with successful suicide prevention efforts as a guide to determining Wisconsin’s own policy. Nevada, who created a state office for prevention in 2014, was the only state to see a reduction in its number of suicides since implementation reported by the CDC.
“We want to make sure youth has resources and understand where to reach out for help whether suicide hotline or HopeLine or in individual school districts,” said Rep. Joan Ballweg, R-Markesan, chair of the task force.
She believes part of the problem is the stigma that can stop people from reaching out.
“We want to make a bigger push to show that behavioral health issues can be helped through treatment,” Ballweg said. “We need to reduce the stigma to move toward being able to help young people that have these suicidal inclinations.”
The task force also hopes to improve training for students and young adults to provide peers with an understanding of warning signs. Research shows that young people are more likely to reach out to a peer first than a specialist.
The creation of the task force came a day before volunteers from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention came to the Capitol for Wisconsin’s first-ever State Capitol Day. AFSP chapters across the nation met with their local leaders to share their personal stories and promote suicide prevention policies.
Volunteers held almost 100 meetings with lawmakers to push for better suicide prevention policies. Advocates spoke to legislators in support of a new mental health parity bill to ensure insurance companies were held accountable to covering financial costs of mental health treatments as they do for physical services.
“We want to get as many advocates in front of leaders to try to ensure that we are all sending the same message in a safe way,” said Gena Orlando, AFSP’s Wisconsin chapter chair. “Mental illness and suicide are topics that people tend to shy away from.”