Dane County Executive Joe Parisi


A mental health support program that has served hundreds of young people and their families - including those in the Stoughton Area School District - will expand this year.

County Executive Joe Parisi announced the creation of and first funding for “Dane County Building Bridges” a decade ago, and since then the initiative has grown to 11 local school districts with an annual county budget allocation of over $1.9 million, according to a Wednesday, May 3 county news release. Local school districts partner to financially support the program.

Parisi first started Building Bridges as a pilot project with the Verona, Sun Prairie, and Madison school districts. According to the news release, as the model succeeded and schools saw the benefits of having these mental health professionals in schools - including improved classroom learning and better liaisons between support at school and home - the partnership was joined by school districts in Oregon, DeForest, Middleton, Mount Horeb, Stoughton, Waunakee and Wisconsin Heights.

“Anxiety, depression, and other behavioral health needs remain great among an increasing number of young people,” said Parisi. “We launched this effort around a decade ago to intervene and focus on prevention, reducing the downstream impacts of mental illness which can impact academic performance and be a barrier to personal and professional success.”

According to the news release, the most recent Dane County Youth Assessment found almost one in four seventh-and eighth-graders felt sad or hopeless almost every day for at least two weeks. One in five had thoughts of taking their lives. 36% said they always or often felt nervous, anxious, or on edge.

“We know the need is great when it comes to helping our young people navigate today’s realities,” Parisi said. “We also know programs like Building Bridges help meet the challenge of the moment, and I’m grateful for the continued support and participation of our partner Dane County schools who share our commitment to this next generation and their families.”

Local impact

The Stoughton Area School District has been working with Building Bridges since the 2017-2018 school year. The program provides two positions, a clinical coordinator who works with the students and school staff and a service coordinator who works directly with the family to provide resources and support to the family.

Every year the coordinators support around 20 families, working with them for 90 days and then providing check-ins at six months and one year. Dane County and SASD pay half of the contract to Catholic Charities for those two positions.

District director of student services Keli Melcher said there are two referral periods in the school year; the first is typically September to mid-October, and the second is January to mid-February. District staff refers 12 students per referral period.

"I really appreciate the intensive work with families because this is something that is hard for the school district to do with limited time and resources,” she wrote in an email to the Hub. “This program is unique and we are continuing to work and shape it to align with the needs of students and staff because we do see a tremendous value in it.”

Successful outcomes

According to the news release, recent data, new data from Building Bridges indicates the program is seeing successful outcomes go beyond the time students and families participate in the program. The percentage of young people who have significant functional impairment at the time they start working with Building Bridges mental health professionals to when they leave the program continues to improve.

However, improvements are still being seen six months after completion. For example, 76% of Building Bridges participants in the 2021-22 school year were considered to have significant impairment at the start of their treatment.

Assessments taken six months after completion of the program showed that number was down in the 40-45% range. More than one in three students and families reported sustaining overall improvement even six months after departing Building Bridges.

Contact editor Scott De Laruelle @sdelaruelle@wisconsinmediagroup.com

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