With shiny new floors and gleaming windows, Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley toured the newly minted, albeit empty Milwaukee County Mental Health Emergency Center on Friday.
The tour was set as a soft launch of the new 24/7 crisis center that would admit both involuntary and voluntary adult and child patients requiring mental health assessments, treatment, stabilization as well as transitional care.
The new facility — located west of the I-43 at 1525 N. 12th St. in the city's King Park neighborhood — is scheduled to open in September 2022, replacing the Behavioral Health Division’s outdated and costly Mental Health Complex in Wauwatosa.
Built in the 1970s, the Wauwatosa site has long been criticized as being an underfunded, understaffed and an overwhelmed hospital that for years struggled with unsafe conditions for patients as well as for nurses and other workers.
The public-private partnership between Milwaukee County, Advocate Aurora Health, Ascension Wisconsin, Children’s Wisconsin, and Froedtert Health to conceive and create the new site aims to tackle the county's ongoing mental health crisis.
As it stands, suicide rates are hitting an all-time high in Milwaukee, with cases "tracking 60 percent higher this year than 2021, and 63 percent higher than 2020," according to Dr. Brian Peterson, Milwaukee County's Chief Medical Examiner.
Drug overdose deaths have also risen in Milwaukee County as the opioid epidemic has raged on nationwide. In 2019 there were 418 drug overdose deaths reported in Milwaukee County. In 2021, updated numbers from the county reveal that number rose to 643 deaths — a 53% increase in that statistic in just two years.
Baldwin described the increasing strain the COVID-19 pandemic has had on mental health as well as substance abuse, with the mix of isolation, poor social contact and remote work, schooling and lack of child care.
"We've seen the crisis we're having right now with mental illness," Baldwin said. "This mental health emergency center is a pivotal role in crisis intervention and an appropriate referral for follow-on treatment."
In March, Baldwin announced in a news release that she had worked to secure just over $2.5 million for the center. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers announced last August that he was allocating $5.7 million for the center.
New location, new design, growing needs
The relocation to a more centric location in the city seemed a more logical choice for the new site, as more than 90% of current patients who come to the Wauwatosa complex are Milwaukee residents and 71% living in the 53205 ZIP code where the center is located or one of the contiguous 10 ZIP codes, according to health officials.
For Crowley, the center will be a "catalyst for change."
"We want to make sure that people in this neighborhood, those that have been affected by the crises for the past few years, know where they can go, and we want this to be one of those places," Crowley said during the tour.
While the new facility is anticipating that 70% of its patients will be adults and 30% children, officials said that they expect a shift in the numbers and needs given its new location in the heart of Milwaukee.
The center will feature different entrances for voluntary and involuntary patients requiring help and a larger, separate space for treating children.
“We did everything we could to make this space as welcoming as possible,” said Michael Lappen, administrator for the Milwaukee County's Behavioral Health Division.
He also explained that multilingual services will be available on-site.
“It could be a housing issue. It could be an issue with their family. It could be something else,” said Lappen, referring to the facility's "no wrong door" policy.
“We will treat their emergency situation with their mental health. We really want to connect them with those things that mean they don't have to come back,” Lappen said.
There are some limits, however, to what services can be rendered by the facility.
When questioned by Baldwin about residents seeking substance abuse-related mental health support, officials noted that they would only be able to test those patients and could not provide treatment. Referrals, however, would be provided.
"We will serve anyone who needs us," Lappen said.
There will be a transition period as the old Wauwatosa site closes and the King Park location opens. But, for now, the plan is up in the air, according to officials.
“It's either going to be a simultaneous thing, or, if we could — it's all depending on staff — we would be open a little bit early so we would be operating together at the same time," said Kevin Kluesner, the administrator of the new emergency center.
Currently, Kluesner estimates that the center has 50% of the staff needed to run the new site and will be fully staffed by the September opening.
"We're still recruiting right now, but we're in a good place," Kluesner said. "I think next month it'll be much better."
Contact Vanessa Swales at 414-308-5881 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Vanessa_Swales.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Baldwin, Crowley tour Milwaukee County Mental Health Emergency Center