Gundersen, school district partnership integrates, normalizes mental health support

Maggie Sonnek Gundersen Health System

Gundersen Health System and the School District of La Crosse are being recognized for their work in championing mental health.

Gundersen was recently named to the Wisconsin Association of School Boards’ 2022 Business Honor Roll, thanks to a nomination by the school district. The award — which recognizes outstanding local businesses that have supported their schools throughout the past year — was presented on Monday at the school board’s regular meeting. Together, Gundersen and the district have implemented a program — created using grant money that was made available in February 2021 — that supports student mental health by deploying two full-time mental health professionals from Gundersen into La Crosse schools.

Gundersen Behavioral Health therapists Barbara Eisenmenger, MSW, LICSW, LCSW, and Tara Allert, EdD, LPC, SAC, meet with nearly 70 students in 12 of La Crosse’s 14 schools.

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Allert, who works with middle and high school students, says that although students’ concerns vary, helping them learn how to manage anxiety is one of the most common presenting concerns.

“We’ve seen increased levels of anxiety since the return to school after remote learning due to COVID,” Allert says. “Now, we’re working to increase coping skills, address lagging skillsets and utilize strategies other than avoidance.”

Eisenmenger works with kids ages preschool through fifth grade. She sees her work as an opportunity for preventative care and support.

“When kids present with early signs of anxiety, school avoidance concerns or are fearful of being in large groups, we can help them develop coping skills to work through that,” Eisenmenger says.

Curt Teff, director of community services for the district, agrees.

“This partnership has really focused on early intervention,” Teff says. “At the first sign of concern from parents or teachers, we’re making sure our students have the right care at the right time.”

Both Allert and Eisenmenger say that ‘right care at the right time’ is made possible by the collaboration of school staff and student services teams.

“I have found their collaboration invaluable to our program,” says Allert.

Eisenmenger adds, “Our collaboration ensures that all the players in a students’ care team are working together.”

Eisenmenger notes that while Allert practices mostly talk therapy with middle and high school students, she applies developmentally appropriate interventions for young children, like play-based therapies.

“There have been significant developmental gaps because of the pandemic,” she says. “We’re helping to build regulation skills, so kids feel more able to manage challenges that come up.”

Josh Court, MSW, MBA, clinical operations director for Behavioral Health at Gundersen, says installing mental health supports in schools touches on two of Gundersen’s priorities: improving the health of our communities and easing the financial burden of healthcare.

“We recognized that many kids weren’t able to get services they needed due to challenges like financial obstacles, transportation issues and logistical hurdles,” Court says. “By ensuring therapists are just down the hall rather than across town, we can begin to knock down some of those barriers.”

“It’s been a great opportunity to have our boots on the ground and see how concerns are playing out in school settings,” she says. “That’s a view we don’t usually get to see. It’s an important piece of being able to offer well-rounded care.”

In March 2022, Gundersen won additional grant money – funded with American Rescue Plan Act dollars – aimed at expanding access to mental health services for children and making telehealth appointments easier to access for people without reliable internet. Using these funds, Gundersen and La Crosse schools plan to set up teletherapy rooms at each school in the district.

“We are always looking for ways to reduce barriers to care,” Court says. “By getting outside our walls and meeting patients where they are, we’re able to provide care in a whole new way.”

He says while these teletherapy rooms will be used by Eisenmenger and Allert, they can also serve as space for other virtual outpatient therapy appointments. He adds that right now, 30% of behavioral health appointments are virtual.

“Schools weren’t intentionally designed to create therapeutic spaces for mental health providers,” Allert says. “So, we’ve run into some inherent challenges. But, together, we’re all working toward the same goal: to create and support healing and growth for students.”

“When kids present with early signs of anxiety, school avoidance concerns or are fearful of being in large groups, we can help them develop coping skills to work through that.”

Barbara Eisenmenger, Gundersen Behavioral Health therapist


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