Teen Mental Wellness: Empowering Minds
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United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County

Group of high school students leaning against a mural

Teen Mental Wellness: Empowering Minds

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Supports school-based youth mental health services and resources.

According to the World Health Organization, half of all mental health conditions start by age 14. Most cases go undetected and untreated until many years later or sometimes not at all. It’s not easy being an adolescent or a young adult. Not only are they experiencing physical, hormonal, and emotional changes that can be uncomfortable and confusing, but they’re also dealing with societal expectations and challenges.

Data from the CDC shows us that more than a third of high school students reported they experienced poor mental health during COVID-19. The details are staggering. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among youths 15 to 29 years old. Depression, eating disorders, and substance use are common among this age group.

In early 2022, United Way brought together mental health experts to collaborate on solutions for youth mental health within our community. Advice and guidance came from local, state, and national experts, as well as those with lived experience. Together, we launched a new initiative, Empowering Minds.

We can change lives of high school students by focusing on prevention, equity, and access to mental health services.



New and increased gifts to Teen Mental Wellness: Empowering Minds are doubled by Medical College of Wisconsin from 7/1/23 to 6/30/24 up to $25,000.

Our Goal: Empowering Minds Schools will elevate the mental wellness of 21,000 high school students by 2030.


The Facts

United Way prioritizes investing deeper into issue areas that meet the following criteria: an issue that truly impacts the community (indicated by data), an issue that our donors would be inspired to give to, and internal capacity and knowledge on the team to drive the work forward. The below facts are key to why this issue was selected.


is the percentage of American teenagers that felt persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in 2021. This is the highest level ever recorded.

Nearly 1 in 2

students in Wisconsin reported anxiety in 2019. A majority of youth in Wisconsin are connected to schools.

$100 billion

is the economic cost of untreated mental illness for all ages each year in the U.S.

  • 75% of adults with behavioral/mental health conditions experienced symptoms by age 24
  • As of 2021, at least one-third of Wisconsin emerging adults ages 18-24 experienced anxiety on most days. 
  • While there are strong local initiatives and coalitions focused on younger children, there is not the same current support for high-school students.
  • White youth are more likely than their Black and Hispanic counterparts to receive treatment after experiencing an acute major depressive episode. 
  • Treatment for depression remains highest among White teens. Estimates of past year treatment for depression were similar among Black and Hispanic teens and lowest among Asian teens.

Empowering Minds Schools of Distinction

United Way’s Teen Mental Wellness: Empowering Minds initiative is centered in schools. This environment allows us to reach a majority of teens where they spend a majority of their days. 


Achieving targeted milestones are the centerpiece of Empowering Minds Schools of Distinction. This is how success is measured. The six milestones are based on Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction’s School Mental Health Framework: Building & Sustaining a Comprehensive School Mental Health System. A benefit of using this framework is that schools are already engaged in this work. This initiative will provide the resources and coordination that schools need to be successful.


A Empowering Minds School of Distinction means building a Comprehensive School Mental Health System, which provides a continuum of services to promote student mental health and wellbeing. We know that positive mental health allows a teen to fully explore who they are and what they want to do with their life. Awareness and understanding of mental health is an important part of overall health and wellbeing.


Caregivers, teachers, school counselors, and other adults who interact with youth play a key role in helping youth build life skills that help them adapt to challenges in healthy and constructive ways. The benefits of school-based mental health include improved student learning, engagement, and graduation rates as well as a reduction in bullying, risky behaviors, substance abuse, school violence, and involvement in the juvenile justice system.


School Mental Health Milestones

Needs Assessment

This milestone is achieved when the school, in partnership with the community, determines the assets and needs of the school and community to analyze how well the continuum of supports meets those needs and leverages strengths and resources.


This milestone is achieved when the school develops a Comprehensive School Mental Health System that relies on collaboration across key stakeholders, such as school and district staff, community partners, out-of-school time providers, students, and families.

Referral Pathways

This milestone is achieved when the school improves referral pathways by establishing a school mental health team to map available resources and interventions.They also develop guidelines for additional data collection and triaging referrals.

Comprehensive Resources

This milestone is achieved when the school offers an array of mental health promotion, early intervention, and treatment services for students, staff,and caregivers. This includes crisis support services, and policies and practices that foster mental health.


This milestone is achieved when the school identifies strategies that optimize financial and nonfinancial assets needed to maintain and improve the Comprehensive School Mental Health System.


This milestone is achieved when the school collects both quantitative and qualitative data to inform priorities and action steps to continuously improve the Comprehensive School Mental Health System.

“If we seize this moment, step up for our children and their families in their moment of need, and lead with inclusion, kindness, and respect, we can lay the foundation for a healthier, more resilient, and more fulfilled nation.”

 - Vivek H. Murthy, M.D., M.B.A., Vice Admiral, U.S. Public Health Service Surgeon General of the United States

Additional Details

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Why did we pick this topic?
  • We looked at a wide range of mental health issues facing our community it became clear after our analysis and conversations with stakeholders that youth mental health was the most urgent need.
  • We know that:
    • Mental health issues were increasing among youth before the pandemic.
    • Poor mental health diminishes quality of life.
    • Poor mental health is a known root cause of poor educational attainment, poor financial stability, substance use disorders, and homelessness, among other things.
  • The U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory in 2021 to highlight the urgent need to address the youth mental health crisis.
  • Community stakeholders agree there are gaps in the current system that United Way has the ability to impact.
What impact do we think we can have?

Our goals are to:

  • Create and support Empowering Minds Schools of Distinction.
  • Reduce stigma – which leads to early detection, more effective prevention, increased access and utilization of mental health services, and a reduction in feelings of shame and self-consciousness by students 
  • Increase access to mental health services. 
  • Increase mental health literacy among adults and students – Mental health literacy creates a shared language among adults and students. Students have asked for more adults to have this shared understanding so that they feel more comfortable approaching an adult with any mental health issues they may be experiencing. 
  • Create healthier school and home environments – parents with lived experience that served as advisors strongly believe that home environments will also improve with this work because schools, caregivers, and home life are inextricably linked – what a student learns in school doesn’t stay at school when they go home. 
What do we hope is different on the other end of the (multi-year) work?

Our goals are:

  • Create systems level change – comprehensive school mental health systems will have positive effects at school, in the community, and at home.
  • Have less students experiencing persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness. 
  • Reduce mental health disparities among students. 
  • Improve student learning, attendance, engagement, graduation rates. 
  • Reduce bullying, risky behaviors, substance abuse, school violence, involvement in juvenile justice system.
Empowering Minds Advisory Committee

Tim Baack
Heather Birk 
Audrey Burghardt 
Dr. Haji Camara
Laura Cherone
Dr. Clarence Chou
Kimberlee Coronado
Frank Cumberbatch 
Leanne Delsart 
Gabriela Dieguez
Martina Gollin Graves
Kristen Harris
Amy Herbst
Kia Holloway
Leah Jepson
Daysi Jimenez
Dr. Lakeia Jones
Tracey Loken Weber
Mary Madden
Kimberly Merath
Kim Polki
Benjamin Porter
Chris Przedpelski
Scott Schuler
Dr. Sebastian Ssempijja
LaShawndra Vernon
Melissa Will
Luke Waldo


Additional Resources

Protecting Youth Mental Health, The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory

The Wisconsin School Mental Health Framework, Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction

Strengthening Student Mental Health, Wisconsin Office of Children's Mental Health

Questions about Teen Mental Wellness: Empowering Minds, contact Amanda Weiler, MPH at 414.263.8116 or via email.