Sarah Reed of the Wisconsin Initiative for Stigma Elimination on Friday asked a crowd of 163 people to stand up if they knew a young person who struggles with mental health challenges.
Every person rose.
Friday’s Summit on Youth Mental Health, hosted by Janesville Mobilizing 4 Change at the Janesville Performing Arts Center, was organized to teach people how to address mental health issues in children.
The takeaway? Adults need to listen to young people—and not just the stereotypical “troubled” kids.
The ‘normal’ kids
Laura Boudreau, a 19-year-old Milton High School alumna and panel speaker, participated in extracurricular activities, made the honor roll and was a varsity swimmer in high school.
On the outside, she appeared to have a perfect life.
Boudreau saw her life differently. She was always nervous, never felt good enough and was at constant risk of a panic attack.
Early in high school, she was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder and trichotillomania, a hair-pulling disorder. Boudreau started seeing a therapist and taking medication, but it was not enough.
A constant fear of failure loomed over her head. She gained weight and developed a bald spot on her head.
After being diagnosed with depression, she checked in to a partial hospitalization program at Rogers Memorial Hospital.
Boudreau’s story is not rare.
David Romano, a member of the Active Minds Speakers Bureau and the summit’s keynote speaker, talks nationwide about his experiences as a depressed teenager.
His story echoes Boudreau’s. He was a star athlete, performer and honor roll student who was crippled by the pressure to be perfect. He worried he would be perceived as weak if he spoke up.
One in five children experiences a mental health challenge, according to data from Janesville Mobilizing 4 Change.
Many adults cannot distinguish mental health challenges from normal adolescent behavior, said Shari Faber, program coordinator for the group.
Stigmas around mental health often keep sufferers from receiving help, Romano said.
More than 20 people in Rock County are trained by the Wisconsin Initiative for Stigma Elimination to offer programs that help people with mental health challenges, Reed said.
WISE training is free, and it is one of the ways Rock County can reach more people who need help, Reed said.
Anxiety and depression are the most common struggles local professionals see in young people.
Michelle Rose-Barajas, a psychologist and Mercy Options clinic manager, said Mercyhealth’s behavioral services could occupy the entire Mercyhealth campus and still not meet the mental health needs in Rock County.
Agencies across the county are exploring ways to get affordable treatment to more people.
Lutheran Social Services provides free counseling in schools for students who might not have insurance or transportation to a clinic, said Alyssa Senz, program coordinator. Waiting lists are common, she said.
Rock County Human Services also offers also services for people who have no other place to go, said Liane Felton, coordinated services supervisor, but the county also has waiting lists.
Romano said almost every place he visits struggles to offer enough mental health treatment.
He advises communities to host events, such as the summit, or create spaces for people to have conversations about mental health. The lower the stigma, the easier it is for people to heal, he said.
The smallest gestures can go a long way, Romano said. Helping someone can be as easy as saying, “It is OK to not be OK.”
Boudreau said sharing her story has helped her control her mental health challenges. She now attends Edgewood College and is studying to become an art teacher.
Mental health challenges never fully go away, Boudreau said. She uses coping mechanisms—and sometimes ice cream—to get through the harder days.
”I am worth the struggle,” she said.