Report: Kids’ mental health problems increase in Wisconsin, nationwide

Kids Count analysis measures children’s well-being trends in all 50 states

By: - August 9, 2022 6:00 am
Group of young children in a classroom

‘School friends’ (woodleywonderworks | CC BY 2.0)

Mental health concerns are rising dramatically among Wisconsin children, particularly among children of color, according to a new report released Monday.

The experience of Wisconsin kids is echoed nationwide, according to the 2022 Kids Count report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. 

The findings reflect what Kids Forward, a Wisconsin research and advocacy group for children and families, has been hearing anecdotally, says Kids Forward CEO Michelle Mackey. Kids Forward partnered with the Casey foundation in releasing the annual Kids Count report and highlighted its Wisconsin-specific findings.

Michele Mackey (J.D., M.S.) is the CEO of Kids Forward.
Michele Mackey, CEO of Kids Forward.

“We’ve heard from pediatricians, child care workers, and the U.S. Surgeon General’s office that children were experiencing significant mental health challenges coming out of the [COVID-19] pandemic,” Mackey tells the Wisconsin Examiner.

Kids Count draws on a variety of national data sources to produce a state-by-state as well as national analysis of the well-being of children and families. The analysis of children’s mental health is based on the National Survey of Children’s Health for 2020, produced by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Census Bureau.

Citing that survey, the Kids Count report finds that 15.6% of Wisconsin children experienced anxiety or depression in 2020, an increase from 12.5% in 2016. But more than one in four Black Wisconsin children — 26% — were identified as having anxiety or depression in 2020.

Mackey says that disparity is a product of the environment and living conditions in which children are growing up. “Only 1% of white children are living in high-poverty areas, compared to a third of Black children,” Mackey says. “You can see how that kind of economic experience can be tipping children of color into greater mental health challenges.”

Economic conditions aren’t the only reason for those differences, however. Inequities in access and treatment along racial lines in the health care system extend to access to mental health care, Mackey says. And while the K-12 education system in theory gives all children access to some mental health care in the form of school-based mental health professionals, it also has its own racial inequities. 

“Those kinds of disparities trickle down” through a variety of social institutions, Mackey says. “Clearly we get some things right for some children and families. But we don’t get things right across the board for all children and all families.”

The overall Kids Count report measures 16 indicators in four broad areas: economic well-being, education, health, and family and community. It compares national data as well as data for each state against previous benchmarks. 

The Wisconsin supplement to the report finds that children’s well-being in the state has improved slightly over the last decade. It also finds that, in several elements of well-being, Wisconsin kids fare better than in many other states. The state ranks 9th on economic well-being, 8th on education, 15th on health and 19th on family and community. 

But while the numbers might suggest that Wisconsin children are better off than those in other states, conditions are far from ideal. And just as the mental health data show disparities among children, Mackey says gains that the report shows for the state’s children overall have been virtually absent for children of color. 

The state data are based on measures for the entire state population. Kids Forward pays attention as well to “what is happening to the most marginalized families and children,” she adds. “For children of color in Wisconsin, that positive trend does not hold. Wisconsin remains one of the worst places for Black children in the nation.”


The latest year of data in the report is 2020, so it captures just the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is still ongoing. Mackey finds reasons to believe that more recent data might show some improvement, but she also warns that other trends could move downward.

With the temporary expansion of the child tax credit, which briefly lifted as many as 3.7 million children nationwide out of poverty through the end of 2021, “it’s possible that the impacts were moderated,” Mackey says. At the same time, however, “we also know families are facing very high inflation, and we are likely heading into another recession,” she added. “In the next five years we could definitely see worse trends for families and children.”

To address the report’s findings, Kids Forward is recommending several strategies, many of which the organization has previously proposed. They include:

  • Increasing the state Earned Income Tax Credit to help reduce childhood poverty and with it behavioral health problems.
  • Increasing statewide funding for school mental health treatment
  • Expanding Medicaid (BadgerCare) in Wisconsin under the federal Affordable Care Act, and increasing Medicaid payments for mental health treatment to help recruit and retain mental health providers.
  • Funding training for early child care teachers to avert removing children from child care when behavioral problems arise.
  • Removing lead paint and pipes from buildings housing child care facilities, because lead poisoning can cause behavioral and learning disorders and impair health. 
  • Increasing access to contraception and abortion. Kids Forward’s report supplement called both “critical to ensuring youth can choose the timing of when they want to start a family, and critical for supporting positive family outcomes.”

Mackey says the projected state budget surplus offers an opportunity to address the proposals that Kids Forward is recommending.

“We need to be really thinking about what we can do to shore things up, particularly focusing on the most marginalized children — children of color, and rural children,” she says. “There’s a lot that we can do in this state, but we have to be intentional and focused in order to do it.”

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary.