Press Release: Gov. Evers Urges Legislative Action to Address Wisconsin’s Mental Health Crisis, Announces Interagency Council on Mental Health

Office of Governor Tony Evers
Gov. Evers Urges Legislative Action to Address Wisconsin’s Mental Health Crisis, Announces Interagency Council on Mental Health
Governor highlights progress made during 2023 Year of Mental Health, recommits to building upon Evers Administration’s efforts with all-of-government approach through new interagency council

MADISON — Gov. Tony Evers tonight, in his 2024 State of the State address, highlighted his administration’s efforts during 2023, the Year of Mental Health, to bolster mental health supports statewide. Gov. Evers announced tonight that he will be creating the Governor’s Interagency Council on Mental Health.  

The Council will build upon the progress made during the Year of Mental Health by connecting the dots across state agencies and creating a statewide action plan to expand access to mental and behavioral health services, increase prevention, reduce stigma, and build capacity among caregivers, providers, and community partners to address the mental health crisis. 

Relevant excerpts from Gov. Evers’ 2024 State of the State address are available below: 

Another area where we must work together to do more and quickly: let’s talk mental health. 

I said here last year that I feared the state of mental health in Wisconsin was a quiet, burgeoning crisis—one I still believe will have cascading effects for generations if it goes unaddressed. So, I declared 2023 the Year of Mental Health in Wisconsin. And, yes, we accomplished some important work together.

I fought hard to secure another $30 million in this biennial budget to build upon our successful Get Kids Ahead initiative to provide school-based mental health services statewide in every school district in Wisconsin.

But I don’t need to remind this Legislature that I requested more than $500 million last year to help expand access to mental and behavioral health services statewide, only a fraction of which was approved. One year after declaring the Year of Mental Health, I’ll tell you tonight, as governor and as a grandfather, my concerns have not changed, and my fears have not waned. Much work remains.

The data have not improved. According to the latest report from the Office of Children’s Mental Health, kids continue to report highly concerning levels of anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts. That’s still especially true for teen girls, students of color, and LGBTQ kids. One-third of high school kids still experience feelings of sadness and hopelessness nearly every day. About one in ten teens has attempted suicide, and nearly half of LGBTQ youth seriously considered suicide. Today, one in six kids experienced a serious episode of depression in 2023—it used to be one in seven. 

“My administration and I are not going to let up on our work on this issue in 2024. We’re going to double our efforts and take a whole-of-government approach. 

“Tonight, I’m announcing I’m creating an Interagency Council on Mental Health and directing Wisconsin state agencies to work together to reduce barriers and address gaps in mental health services. We’re going to develop a statewide Mental Health Action Plan to address the root causes of our mental health crisis, increase awareness and reduce stigma, and build capacity for us to expand access to mental health services statewide. 

“Our state’s mental health challenges are significant. Let’s do more to make a difference on this issue in 2024. We have to. And I’m optimistic we will because our kids are leading the way. 

“Students in Merrill are doing amazing work through a student-led program called “Raise Your Voice.” It’s part of an effort led by NAMI Wisconsin to educate, support, and empower youth to talk openly about mental health. 

“The program at Merrill High School began with just eight students. And then it grew. And these students have helped expand the program to other middle schools and high schools across the region with more than 200 members. Merrill High’s Raise Your Voice advisors and founding students are here in the gallery tonight. Please join me in recognizing them, and let’s resolve tonight to do the work to support our kids.”

The Governor’s Interagency Council on Mental Health will continue the Evers Administration’s efforts to comprehensively address the mental health crisis by: 

  • Creating a statewide action plan for mental health that addresses prevention, increases awareness, reduces stigma, ensures access and affordability of quality care, and builds capacity among caregivers, providers, and community partners; 
  • Cultivating cross-agency partnerships and assessing mental health programs administered by each department to evaluate gaps in service and help bring programs into alignment; 
  • Reviewing current programs, including those developed using American Rescue Plan Act funds, to determine appropriate paths to sustainability or expansion; 
  • Developing proposals that effectively and equitably address the root causes of the mental health crisis, create pathways to sustain these interagency partnerships, and develop performance metrics to evaluate the outcomes of these initiatives;
  • Strengthening agency relationships with community partners, including local units of government, school districts, court systems, and others, to build capacity to address the mental health crisis; and 
  • Collaborating to improve other social determinants that impact one’s mental health, such as access to quality, affordable healthcare, safe housing, food security, financial security, and social connectedness among Wisconsinites. 

Gov. Evers will execute an executive order creating the Governor’s Interagency Council on Mental Health in the coming days. 

Gov. Evers has been a champion for expanding access to mental and behavioral healthcare services across Wisconsin. In recognition of the troubling statistics seen over the past few years regarding mental health and the growing demand for mental and behavioral health services providers have seen across the state, Gov. Evers declared 2023 the Year of Mental Health in his 2023 State of the State address, calling mental and behavioral health a “burgeoning crisis” affecting the state and Wisconsin’s kids, families, and workforce. In the address, the governor also announced his 2023-25 executive budget would include more than $500 million to expand access to mental and behavioral health services across Wisconsin. While Republicans in the Legislature slashed many of these investments, the final 2023-25 biennial budget, which Gov. Evers signed last year, still included several critical investments to ensure more Wisconsinites can get the mental healthcare they need, including students, farmers, and veterans. Some of those investments included 

  • Providing $30 million to continue support for school-based mental health services modeled on the governor’s successful “Get Kids Ahead” initiative. This program will allocate funding to every school district and independent charter school statewide for mental health-related programming and services;    
  • Providing $200,000 for mental health assistance to farmers and farm families. This crucial funding enables farmers and farm family members to access in-person counseling services from a participating mental health provider in their local area at no cost;  
  • Increasing funding by 25 percent for county veteran services offices and Tribal veterans service offices, which help veterans connect to benefits, preventative programming, and mental health resources;  
  • Providing more than $30 million over the biennium to increase Medicaid reimbursement rates for services provided in hospital behavioral health units;  
  • Providing $7 million over the biennium for the psychiatry and behavioral health residency program at the Medical College of Wisconsin to support the recruitment and training of psychiatry and behavioral health residents;  
  • Providing $10 million in funding for up to two crisis urgent care and observation centers, which will serve as regional receiving and stabilization facilities to improve service delivery and patient outcomes;   
  • Providing $2 million over the biennium to establish a telemedicine crisis response pilot program in order to provide faster and more efficient care;  
  • Providing more than $1 million over the biennium for social-emotional training and technical assistance for child care providers; and  
  • Providing more than $500,000 in Tribal gaming revenues over the biennium to the Oneida Nation for staff and service costs in their Healing to Wellness Court to support a coordinated, post-conviction substance use program that will reduce recidivism and break the cycle of substance use.  

The Evers Administration has also made significant progress outside of the state’s biennial budget. Last year, Gov. Evers and Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary James Bond launched the Veteran Mental Health Community-Based Organization Grant program and announced nearly $650,000 in grants to 16 nonprofit organizations to promote positive mental health through activities, programs, and services that enhance the emotional, psychological, and social well-being of Wisconsin veterans. In September, Gov. Evers also announced two additional veteran mental health grants for mental health providers to serve veterans with crisis or emergency mental health needs and for licensed providers to administer mental health services to veterans. These grant programs are now seeking applicants for their second round of funding.  

Additionally, in October, Gov. Evers announced that the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) is receiving nearly $17 million in new federal funding to enhance operations of the 988 Wisconsin Lifeline, the service that answers calls, texts, and chats to the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline from Wisconsin-based phone numbers and locations. The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline launched in July 2022 after U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) led efforts to establish the program and secure funding. In its first year of service, Wisconsin’s 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline received more than 91,800 contacts—one of the highest call volumes in the nation—and individuals reported struggling with suicidal thoughts and intent, as well as challenges with mental health, substance use, and interpersonal or relationship issues and abuse. The state has also seen record-high rates of substance use and overdose deaths in recent years, with more than 1,700 Wisconsinites having lost their lives to an overdose in 2022 alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Despite these steps forward, far more work remains to comprehensively address the mental health challenges facing Wisconsinites, including youth who are experiencing their own mental health crisis. 

According to the Wisconsin Office of Children’s Mental Health’s 2023 Annual Report released this month, youth across the state report levels of anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts at extremely concerning rates, especially among girls, kids of color, and LGBTQ youth. About one-third of high school students in Wisconsin experience feelings of sadness and hopelessness nearly every day—a 10-percent increase over the last decade, and the number of youths experiencing a serious episode of depression increased from last year’s rate of one in seven to approximately one six. Furthermore, nearly one in ten teens has attempted suicide, and nearly half of LGBTQ youth seriously considered suicide. In addition to environmental factors, like food and housing insecurity, that the report cites as negatively impacting youth mental health, the report also notes that the key stressors reported by youth are academic pressure, along with societal stressors like widespread gun violence, climate change, discrimination, and deep political divisiveness. More information, data, and fact sheets on youth mental health can be found on the Office of Children’s Mental Health’s webpage here. 

Over the past year, Gov. Evers visited numerous schools to meet with students who are leading on this issue to hear about their work to uplift their fellow classmates, connect them with resources and support, and reduce the stigma associated with mental health. On January 25, the day after delivering his 2023 State of the State address and declaring it the Year of Mental Health, Gov. Evers visited Ashland High School in Ashland to meet with students, teachers, and staff and learn more about their leadership in providing mental health resources and teaching resilience to their students. In May, Gov. Evers visited Phoenix Middle School in Delavan and McFarland High School in McFarland, where he met with students and staff to learn about their peer-based “Hope Squad” programs. Hope Squad members are nominated by their classmates as trustworthy peers and trained by advisors to provide education and support to fellow students grappling with mental health challenges. Last month, Gov. Evers also visited Merrill High School in Merrill, where he met with students from area schools in the “Raise Your Voice” club working to raise awareness, reduce the stigma, and take care of one another.  

Additionally, Gov. Evers visited several nonprofit organizations, healthcare providers, and substance use treatment facilities to meet with Wisconsinites and hear about their good work to provide resources, treatment, and support to those in their communities dealing with mental and behavioral health challenges. In January, Gov. Evers visited with the staff and leadership of the Wisconsin United Coalition of Mutual Assistance Association (WUCMAA) in Wausau. WUCMAA focuses on suicide prevention and building resilience and strength among Wisconsin’s Hmong and Southeast Asian communities, and the governor has been proud to support their efforts through various grant programs, including funding for their Project Resiliency program and their peer-run mental health warmlineIn February, Gov. Evers highlighted farmer’s mental health needs at a visit and tour of the Laird Center and Library at Marshfield Clinic in Marshfield, where he had a conversation with leaders and researchers from the National Farm Medicine Center about their mental health initiatives for farmers and rural communities. Gov. Evers also toured Rogers Behavioral Health’s Appleton clinic, where he learned more about their work to provide mental and behavioral healthcare to members of the community, particularly youth. 

During Mental Health Awareness Month in May, Gov. Evers hosted a roundtable discussion about farmer mental health Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Secretary Randy Romanski in Reedsburg and members of the Farmer Angel Network, which is a local organization focused on mental wellness and suicide prevention in rural communities. The governor also visited the Coulee Recovery Center in La Crosse, which is a peer-run respite facility that provides help to individuals and families impacted by substance use disorder and provides substance use education, prevention, and awareness to the community. In 2021, the center was awarded $30,000 annually for five years through a peer recovery center grant from DHS.  

In December, Gov. Evers visited Family Health La Clinica in Friendship to participate in a discussion with staff regarding the mental and behavioral health services they provide to the community and their work to close gaps in access to care. Gov. Evers also traveled to Alma last month to meet with folks from a community-founded nonprofit organization called Hope 4 U. Comprised of community members working in Buffalo, Pepin, and Trempealeau counties, Hope 4 U was founded to provide mental health support in the area and works to raise awareness of suicide by ending the stigma associated with mental health and focusing on prevention, awareness, and intervention.  

Anyone in need of support can call, text, or chat the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at all hours of the day or night to talk with a trained counselor about any challenge or concern. This service is free and confidential.

Additional mental health resources are available on the DHS website at:   

If you are in imminent danger or experiencing a medical emergency, call 911. 

An online version of this release is available here.