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What’s got you scratching your head about Milwaukee and the region? Bubbler Talk is a series that puts your curiosity front and center.

Mental Health Care In Milwaukee County Could Include New Emergency Center

Chuck Quirmbach
In the foreground, is the Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex. More modern buildings, including Froedtert and Children's hospitals are in the background.

Today, Bubbler Talklooks at the status of mental health care in the Milwaukee area. Our question comes from listener and Milwaukee resident Scott Bollen. He often drives by the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center in Wauwatosa and notices a disparity between one modern facility and one set of older buildings.

"The difference between Froedtert [Hospital] — multi-million dollar renovations happening and the [Milwaukee County] Mental Health Complex, which is kind of degrading, falling apart,” Bollen tells WUWM.

Bollen, a former school counselor, says better access to mental health care in a modern setting might head off more health problems. "I want to approach and address the root causes of illness, which is often mental health, rather than just symptoms that manifest later on in someone's life,” he says.

Credit Chuck Quirmbach / WUWM
Tiquesha Jarrett speaks about her sister, Tinesha Jarrett, at a December news conference.

Mental health care was in the headlines in December, when a Wauwatosa police officer shot and wounded Tinesha Jarrett, a Black woman who police say had hit a woman and later an officer's squad car with a wooden post. Jarrett's sister, Tiquesha Jarrett, said her sibling had worked in nursing but had been struggling with mental health after getting COVID-19. 

"After COVID, people do have issues. She cried out for help — the same way she helped people, the same way she stood by everybody. She needed help,” said Jarrett at a news conference outside the Wauwatosa Police Department.

The West Allis Police Department has been reviewing the shooting. The Milwaukee County District Attorney's office said that it sounds like they'll get their first look at the matter during the week of January 25.

The County Mental Health complex in Wauwatosa has an emergency unit that sees about 7,000 cases in a typical year. But that may be about to change. The county is proposing to build a new emergency mental health center just northwest of downtown Milwaukee near the intersection of N. 12th St. and W. Walnut St.

Credit Chuck Quirmbach / WUWM
The current emergency services unit at the Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex, located on W. Watertown Plank Rd.

During a virtual town hall meeting Thursday night, Behavioral Health Division Administrator Michael Lappen said the new building would be much closer to most of the people who need help.

"This location is something like five minutes from the great majority of people we serve. Seventy percent of the folks we serve are in the zip codes adjacent to this one, and 90% of the emergency center visits are people who live in the city of Milwaukee,” he said. “Half of those people are people who walk in voluntarily. They find a way to get out to us, and you can only imagine how many more people would be served if they had this access close to home and in the neighborhood they live and we could be right there for them.”

Major health care providers in the area would partner with the new center. Advocate Aurora official Peter Carlson said he hopes the roughly 70 emergency center workers in Wauwatosa want to move to the new location.

"We continue to face significant shortages of behavioral health professionals — nationally, and in our state and community as well. While we aren't going to guarantee jobs, we are absolutely going to be encouraging all current staff to apply for positions in the new mental health center,” Carlson said.

Credit Chuck Quirmbach / Screenshot
Eppstein Uhen Architects showed this rendering of the proposed new emergency mental health care building, during the January 21 virtual town hall meeting. It would be located just northwest of downtown Milwaukee, near the intersection of N. 12th St. and W. Walnut St.

A group that advocates for people with mental illness, Disability Rights Wisconsin, says having adequate and culturally diverse staffing is one thing to be worked out at the new location. The group's Barbara Beckert says an emergency center on Milwaukee’s near north side would potentially bring a lot of positives. But she hopes the county and its partners fully engage with stakeholders.

"That includes people who experience mental illness, family members, advocates, community service providers, the faith community, law enforcement. And, my hope is that there will be will be work groups people can participate in, and we can be part of moving this forward,” Beckert says.

The Milwaukee County Mental Health Board will hold a public hearing on the proposed emergency center January 28th at 4:30 p.m.  The county hopes the new building will open its doors within 15 months. 

Universal Health Services has a contract with Milwaukee County to build a hospital in West Allis to provide inpatient care for patients now treated at the Mental Health Complex in Wauwatosa.

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