Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Friday, April 25, 2014

Cost-benefit analysis aids mental health services in Fox River Valley

Thanks in part to a La Follette School cost-benefit analysis, children and adolescents in Wisconsin's Fox River Valley have access to school-based mental health services.

In 2008, United Way Fox Cities partnered with three community mental health providers and the Menasha Joint School District to start a school-based mental health access project called Providing Access to Healing for Students. In fall 2012, students in David Weimer's cost-benefit class prepared an analysis for United Way Fox Cities' PATH for Students that has helped the program receive support and expand over the past several years.

United Way's PATH for Students was designed to provide evidence-based, mental health therapy to elementary, middle, and high school students experiencing barriers to care elsewhere in the community. Barriers included limited financial resources, lack of reliable transportation, parent work schedules, and lack of parental engagement.

A school-based program was created for several reasons: a school is a safe and accepting environment, on-site therapy eliminates transportation concerns, and on-site therapy greatly reduces missed appointments and missed classroom time. Services are provided by licensed therapists with expertise in child and adolescent mental health.

United Way's PATH for Students started as a three-year pilot in Menasha in 2008 and quickly demonstrated outstanding results, so much so that other districts asked for the service. PATH has expanded to 23 schools in 10 school districts. "We wish we could serve all schools in all of our local districts, but we just don't have the financial resources," says Mary Wisnet of United Way Fox Cities. "That's where the La Follette cost-benefit analysis comes in."

Wisnet, a graduate of the Center for the Study of Public Policy and Administration, a precursor of the La Follette School, was happy to have data on the cost-benefit of the program to use in grant applications.

Weimer's students found that for 155 students treated in a single school year in the Menasha, Appleton, Kaukauna, Kimberly and Little Chute school districts, the net benefits of PATH for Students totaled $7,472,000 over the lifetime of the student or approximately $49,000 per person.

"That's huge," says Wisnet. "For students, the benefits include avoided medical costs, increased productivity and lifetime earnings, decreased risk of suicide and increased quality of life. School districts experience decreased truancy, and behavioral and counseling expenditures. For the community, there are avoided costs to the criminal justice system."

The La Follette students found that the benefits of PATH for Students far outweigh the program costs.

The analysis has been a boon for the people in the Fox Valley as they expanded the program to additional districts. "We use the La Follette study extensively to show the value of our school-based mental health program," says Peter Kelly, president and chief executive officer of United Way Fox Cities. As we talk with other similar programs around the country, they are envious of our data and our relationship with the La Follette School. We hope to have the La Follette students do a follow-up analysis now that the program is in more districts."

The collaboration came about through a connection Terry Cohn at Community Health Connections, a community engagement infrastructure of the Institute for Clinical and Translational Research at the University of Wisconsin–Madison's School of Medicine and Public Health, made with Elizabeth Feder, project director of the Evidence-Based Health Policy Project, a partnership of La Follette School, the campus Population Health Institute and the Wisconsin Legislative Council.

"Liz suggested that the La Follette School might be able to do a cost- benefit analysis of a mental health program in Menasha," Cohn says. "Paul Moberg at the Population Health Institute suggested David Weimer and an introduction connecting David and Peter Kelly resulted in mutual interest and a finished product."