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Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division makes mental health care accessible to all

Insurance plans that offer mental health benefits have to keep them in line with the coverage for medical care.
The Behavioral Health Division is filled with experienced professionals waiting to serve Milwaukeeans no matter who they are, their situation, their ability to pay, or insurance status.

According to CDC data, adults who reported systems of anxiety or depression between April 2020 and February 2021 rose by 27% compared to the previous year. Additionally, emergency room visits for drug overdoses increased by 36%.

Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division, or BHD, administrator Mike Lappen joins Lake Effect to help make sense of this jarring data and to cover available resources. Lappen explains that one of the largest setbacks for BHD is the fact that people are unaware of the systems in place to help them. He emphasizes that BHD is filled with experienced professionals waiting to serve Milwaukeeans no matter who they are, their situation, their ability to pay, or insurance status.

“For many, tragically, their first contact is with the law enforcement system or with an emergency room that really doesn't have the tools to help them. So what we've tried to do is prioritize a mobile community response that meets people where they're at, ideally, one that gets to them before they feel the need to go to that emergency room or before they have that police contact,” says Lappen.

Similarly, BHD’s Crisis Assessment Response Team (CART) aims to help community members through mental health crises by teaming up with the Milwaukee Sheriff’s Office and Milwaukee Police Department. Lappen explains when the team is dispatched with police, they connect people with services to meet their needs, such as housing, food, or mental health services.

“Data going back since we started, the program basically says that 80% of the time, when that team gets dispatched to a situation, the outcome is something other than an arrest or an emergency detention or an involuntary hold,” says Lappen.

BHD continues to offer support and services to the community all while being 40% understaffed. Lappen says that community based mental health providers across the country are really struggling right now. He announced that BHD is currently hiring with the hope to fill in those gaps.

“We're not missing calls. We're not dropping the ball here because of staffing at this time. But our teams are really stressed. And like everyone, in the pandemic, these folks have not worked from home. They've not been remote. They've been out in the field throughout this thing," says Lappen. "And we haven't missed a beat.”

While these resources are available for those struggling, they are only helpful if loved ones can detect the signs of mental health or substance abuse crises. Lappen details these signs include losing interest in things they were passionate about, avoiding social situations, withdrawing from relationships, or mentioning thoughts of suicide or thoughts of self harm.

“There's so much stigma around mental health and substance use issues that people often don't want to reach out. When they finally get to that threshold, things are pretty serious, and they're struggling, and they need that help," says Lappen.

To ease this process, BHD is working towards a system that will lower or eradicate barriers to mental help. Last year alone, the organization orchestrated around 5,000 crisis mobile visits with the CART team. They now are generating partnerships with health centers across Milwaukee that helps connect people to mental health and substance abuse treatment services.

“Our goal is to have Milwaukee be the healthiest community in the state, and mental health and substance use are a big part of that. And helping people address their challenges and sort of de-stigmatizing those needs, and making it just another part of your health care picture,” says Lappen.

If you or a loved one is seeking mental health or substance abuse services, you can reach the BHD crisis service line at (414)-257-7222 for around the clock help. Lappen details that the line will connect you with resources that fit your needs whether it is an oupaitent provider, housing assistance, or a visit from the mobile crisis team.

“We will help you no matter what your level of need is, no matter what your ability to pay as you don't have to have insurance—we want to serve you," says Lappen.

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Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Cait Flynn was an assistant producer for Lake Effect 2022 to 2023.
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