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By Pete Ricketts
Nebraska Governor 

Keeping Mental Health a Priority


Mental illness is a national public health issue that affects Nebraska as well.  During my time as Governor, we’ve made mental health a priority and have rolled out several programs to identify mental illness and get Nebraska’s students, veterans, and others the care they need.

As a result of these efforts, U.S. News and World Report now ranks Nebraska as having the fourth-best mental health in the nation.  However, we still have plenty of room for improvement.  As we work to prevent mental illness across the state, we’re giving special attention to the mental health of our military members, our veterans, and our youth. 

Prioritizing Mental Health: Service Members, Veterans, and their Families

The call to defend our country comes with a cost.  Many of our veterans bear the physical or psychological scars of service.

I know from personal experience that our service members often see it as a sign of weakness to ask for help with mental health problems.  But asking for help is a sign of wisdom, not of weakness.  If you broke your arm, you’d go to the doctor.  You wouldn’t try to dress the wound and put on a splint yourself.  The same is true for mental health.  When we have an issue, it’s important to seek immediate help from a medical professional.

In Nebraska, we do a fantastic job of taking care of our veterans.  SmartAsset just ranked us as the fourth-best state in America for veterans.  The Nebraska Department of Veterans’ Affairs (NDVA) provides excellent service to the men and women who’ve put on the cloth to defend our nation, and the agency is constantly looking for ways to do even more to serve our heroes. 

On June 6th, we took another step forward by launching the Governor’s Challenge to Prevent Suicide Among Service Members, Veterans, and their Families.  It’s part of a national effort to make mental health services more readily available.  In Nebraska, the initiative will be led by NDVA and the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services’ (DHHS) Behavioral Health Division.  It’s being spearheaded by 29 teammates and will span two years.  This cooperative effort will involve strategic planning, setting action steps to chart the way forward, and measuring progress to hold ourselves accountable for making improvement to the care we provide our service members.

Prioritizing Mental Health: Youth

Half of all lifetime mental health illness starts by age 14, and the effects can be devastating.  Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Americans ages 10-14 and the third-leading cause of death for those 15-24 years old.

The pandemic has intensified the mental health challenges of our youth.  School closures caused kids to be isolated from peers, teachers, and coaches.  This had a profoundly negative impact not only on their education but also on their mental well-being.  Children’s hospitals in America report that the number of self-harm and suicide cases increased 45% from 2019 to 2021 among 5-17 year-olds.

To address this challenge, we took major strides this legislative session to expand access to pediatric mental healthcare in Nebraska.  The State allocated $10 million of ARPA funds toward the construction of a behavioral health center for children ages 5-18 at CHI Immanuel; $10 million to expand a youth mental health development day school at Boys Town; and $10 million to Children’s Hospital as it develops urgent care centers to address pediatric mental health.  DHHS is also providing an additional $1.8 million to Children’s Hospital for telehealth technology to support pediatric mental health services.

Additionally, the State continues to partner with nonprofits, behavioral healthcare providers, and schools to help prevent suicides.  Here are some of our primary efforts:

DHHS was awarded a five-year federal grant in 2018 to build a behavioral health “system of care” to support those battling mental illness in a less restrictive setting.  Since its launch, there have been over 1,800 youth crisis response encounters.  Of those encounters, 75% successfully resolved the immediate crisis and supported youth and their families in the community without the need to refer them to inpatient care.  As a result of the system of care response, the percentage of youth needing inpatient care or residential treatment dropped from 6.7% in FY2017 to 3.3% in FY2019.

DHHS has collaborated with the Nebraska Department of Education, schools, educational service units, and localized systems of care to create the Behavioral Health Resources for Schools guide.  It serves as a mental health toolkit that identifies local protocols for accessing behavioral health services.

Nearly 30,000 Nebraskans have been trained on Question, Persuade, Refer (QPR), a suicide prevention program.

67,000+ educators and school personnel have received Kognito suicide prevention training and over 22,000 have been trained in Suicide Safe Schools.

The State provided Mental Health First Aid training to 943 people last fiscal year.  Trainees are equipped with skills to respond to the signs of mental illness and substance use.

We’re fully invested in preventing and treating mental illness in Nebraska. But the State cannot do this alone.  It takes involvement from everyone – nonprofits, educators, medical professionals, family members, and peers – to identify signs of mental illness and to encourage those dealing with it to get the help they need.  

In the coming months, we will continue to evaluate our mental health training and services to make sure Nebraska is taking care of our own.


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