Kids across Wisconsin are facing a mental and behavioral health crisis. They have high rates of anxiety, depression and suicide, and not enough access to care. When COVID-19 hit, the issue only became more pronounced. At Children’s Wisconsin, they took this crisis as an opportunity to innovate rapidly.
Over the past year, the Children’s Wisconsin Mental and Behavioral Health, Digital Health and Experience, Information Technology and Institute for Child and Family Well-Being teams have been busy redesigning the system's mental and behavioral health capabilities in a virtual environment. Children’s Wisconsin knew mental and behavioral health issues weren’t going to wait for COVID-19 to end, so they quickly created new telehealth services and enhanced their existing platforms.
In recognition of this important work, the Milwaukee Business Journal has awarded Children’s Wisconsin a Business Tech Award for their “Innovative Use of Emerging Technologies” to ensure kids got access to the mental and behavioral health care they need. This award recognizes multiple projects Children’s Wisconsin has pioneered over the last year.
In Wisconsin, 1 in 5 kids suffer from a mental health disorder and at least half of those kids are not receiving the treatment they need. To help combat this growing crisis, in 2019 Children's Wisconsin made a $150 million commitment to mental and behavioral health. One of the pillars of this work was breaking down barriers to care. In the past year, through collaboration and innovation, Children's Wisconsin has made incredible progress toward that goal.
Prior to April 2020, Children’s Wisconsin did not have a single telehealth visit for mental and behavioral health — there wasn’t even have the ability to do so. But in the year since, the mental and behavioral health team has completed nearly 50,000 telehealth visits with kids across the state. In fact, even as in-person visits have resumed, telehealth still accounts for the majority of the mental and behavioral health appointments.
A standard telehealth interface — two faces on a screen — can be difficult and intimidating for kids. Children’s Wisconsin knew it had to do more to engage kids and families during these virtual visits. Led by a couple of innovative therapists on the team, the Children’s Wisconsin mental and behavioral health team took tele-therapy to the next level by creating virtual therapy offices. These “Zoom rooms” are kid-friendly, interactive web interfaces that kids and parents can explore with their provider. Each room they enter has different themes, décor and interactive resources that kids can manipulate and explore. There is a Mindfulness Room full of creative, virtual activities such as painting, sand tray, Light Bright and coloring pages. There is a Yoga Studio, a Library Room and a Music Room, as well as rooms for feelings, diversity and inclusion, trauma informed care, adoption and foster care, potty training and COVID-19 coping. With these interactive rooms, kids are fully engaged and given a safe, familiar space they can feel comfortable in and are free to navigate as they please.
Another way Children’s Wisconsin is working to make mental and behavioral health care more accessible and engaging for kids is through an app called Manatee. Manatee is a digital care platform that empowers kids and families by integrating therapy goals and activities into their lives outside of the therapy appointment. The platform is interactive and can be used for a variety of mental and behavioral health conditions. Manatee can also suggest goals depending on the patient and family’s specific needs including goals focused on self-esteem, personal hygiene, self-care, and symptom management. These goals are incentivized with points letting the patient “unlock” different rewards within the app. The patient or their parents can use this app to track progress and the therapist can see what they are tracking. This lets the therapist see what is being done at home between sessions and can then use that information in their planning for the next session.
Children’s Wisconsin is currently providing an 8-week virtual therapy group for parents/caregivers and a child in their care called Parenting with Praise, Reflect, Imitate, Describe and Enjoy (Parenting with PRIDE). Facilitated by licensed mental and behavioral health therapists and including components from the evidence-based Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT), Parenting with PRIDE helps caregivers of young children manage challenging behaviors, such as not listening, difficulty with transitions, acting out and handling big emotions. Each family is able to learn tangible strategies that promote positive behaviors, enhance the caregiver-child relationship and decrease undesired behaviors through engaging activities and live coaching with a PCIT-trained therapist. Additionally, this group benefits parents who may identify as overwhelmed, depressed, stressed, feel guilty or are confused about how to best meet the needs of their children who might be struggling with focus or changes in daily life. Parents who have participated in PCIT-based groups have provided feedback that they feel less isolated and have experienced a reduction in parenting stress — essential in this COVID-19 environment.
In Wisconsin, there is a severe shortage of child and adolescent psychiatrists. Children’s Wisconsin has a team of psychiatrists in southeast Wisconsin who care for kids and families. However, the demand for these specialized physicians is more than the Children’s Wisconsin team could meet in a timely manner for kids across the state. In November 2020, Children’s Wisconsin contracted with a telehealth organizations to bring on three child and adolescent psychiatrists who specialized in providing telehealth. By quickly expanding the psychiatrist team through a hybrid model of in-person and telehealth sessions, Children’s Wisconsin has greatly expanded timely access to kids who need their care. To date, the new tele-psychiatrists have served nearly 400 kids and completed more than 650 appointments. Without their help, these kids may still be on wait lists for care and this partnership has enhanced the ability to get kids to the right care, at the right time, when they need it.
The progress and achievements that have been made in mental and behavioral health this past year have been remarkable. The teams at Children’s Wisconsin have upgraded and created systems of care that are fun, convenient, engaging and kid-friendly. They are leading the way for family-focused, digital innovation and the kids of Wisconsin are seeing the benefits. Congratulations to everyone involved who helped bring these programs to life.
Front row: Peggy Lawrence; Alecia Corbett, MSW, LCSW; Trish Wnek; Kim Cronsell, MD; Robert Kelley; Kate Bennett, MSW, LCSW; Tanya Skorstad; Todd Privat.
Middle row: Julie Swiderski; Tracy Clemens; Michelle Borchardt, COC, CPC, CEMC; Matthew Wells; Haley Miller, MSW, LCSW; Monica Ricca; Amy Herbst, MSSW, APSW; Christopher Neuharth; Brittany Bice-Urbach, PhD; Antoinette Sansone; Sharon Schiller.
Back row: Tracy Meyer, MS; Tracy Oerter, MS; Jenny Walczak, PsyD; Jennifer Scott, MSW, LCSW; Smriti Khare, MD; Erin Edlhuber, CRIP; Michael Wagner; Maria Opiela; Tricia Schutz, MSW, LCSW; Kristin Kroll, PhD.