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Bipartisan bill would create regional mental health crisis centers in Wisconsin

Rural residents currently have to travel hours to seek urgent mental health care

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Clouds and a blue sky are the backdrop for the Wisconsin State Capitol
The Wisconsin state Capitol on Thursday, April 29, 2021, in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

The state would begin to set up regional mental health crisis centers throughout Wisconsin to provide short-term care during an emergency under a plan working its way through the Legislature.

The bipartisan bill would spend $10 million already budgeted for mental health to create “one-stop shops” for individuals in crisis. The centers would allow voluntary or emergency detention for up to five days without patients having to be transported to the Winnebago Mental Health Institute near Oshkosh.

Currently, people in crisis are usually met by police officers. Testimony before a legislative committee Wednesday included stories of people being handcuffed and transported hours away from their loved ones while in distress or after attempting suicide.

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“That’s not the best way to treat somebody who’s in a mental health crisis — put them in the back of a squad car for a three and a half hour trip,” said Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, who introduced the legislation.

Sen. Rachael Cabral-Guevara, R-Appleton, spoke at the hearing about her own experience caring for someone in crisis.

“I’ve had to transport my loved one from Appleton down to Milwaukee in acute psychosis. And it is literally one of the most traumatic things I’ve ever had to do as a family member,” she said. “I can only imagine how challenging that is in those transportation times when you have somebody who is psychotic or struggling with whatever they’re struggling with.”

The bill would create centers modeled after Crisis Now, a set of best practices for community crisis response. The facilities would be staffed with psychiatrists, nurses and certified peer support specialists in what supporters call a home-like environment that offers more support than a hospital or emergency room.

“These centers will be located closer to home, especially for residents in western Wisconsin who need support and services during a mental health crisis,” said Rep. Clint Moses, R-Menomonie. “This has been a long-time coming and much needed for our state.”

Grant County Sheriff Nathan Dreckman, a former president of the Badger State Sheriffs Association, said he has been working with lawmakers and other stakeholders for years to establish a framework for regional facilities.

When law enforcement responds to a mental health crisis, it takes officers out of their communities for extended periods of time and results in departments spending more on overtime pay, he said.

“Advancing this bill will put the state on the right path to large-scale reform to treat those individuals in crisis more quickly, closer to home and in a manner that is less dependent on law enforcement,” Dreckman said in a statement.

The proposal also has support from Department of Health Services Secretary Kirsten Johnson, who was appointed by Gov. Tony Evers. In a written statement, Johnson called the bill “a significant and meaningful step.”

“Addressing the lack of treatment options for Wisconsinites experiencing a mental health crisis has been one of our agency’s top priorities,” Johnson said. “Far too many people who are in crisis are brought to an emergency room with a long wait time and transferred to a mental health facility while in law enforcement custody, which can exacerbate a crisis.”

Sita Diehl is the advocacy and policy director of Wisconsin’s branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. She said the initial $10 million investment is expected to support the creation of one to two facilities.

“We look to the day when we have at least one in each DHS region,” Diehl said.

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