The State of Mental Health Care in St. Croix County


People experiencing mental health crises here in St. Croix County is not a new problem. After a career spent dedicated to providing healthcare services to those in need in Northwestern Wisconsin, District 10 State Senator Patty Schachtner has taken this fight to Madison.

How we address mental health concerns must be a dialogue that’s fostered immediately and seen as a priority. “We cannot depend on one entity, it takes everyone to come together. We have to understand that resilience and building these skills are part of the equation. Overall wellness is huge,” said Sen. Schachtner. “We have to think about the experiences of other people and understand that if we have never experienced it, we should not be telling them how to feel.”

Education is key when it comes to mental health. Sen. Schachtner explained that we have to teach people at a young age what our boundaries are, and how we understand our internal compass; part of the solution will come through increasing awareness and building empathy.

“We need to understand that mental illness is a disease of the brain. We would never treat a person with diabetes, cancer, or heart disease the way we treat people with mental illness,” said Sen. Schachtner.

Asking for help, understanding mental health


Sen. Schachtner has been a mental health activist throughout her professional career and personal life. “As a healthcare provider, mental health is not something you were taught to treat. You were taught how to take vital signs and talk to someone who was having a heart attack or stroke, but you never had established tools to talk to someone who was having a mental health crisis,” said Sen. Schachtner.

Sen. Schachtner explained that sometimes people do not have the capacity to ask for help and, often, families do not know what to ask. Improving our understanding of how to offer support to those that are struggling is key. She suggested using the QPR method: Question, persuade, refer. “It’s about giving people the tools to ask someone if they are going to hurt themselves and not feel weird about asking that question,” said Sen. Schachtner.

To deliver effective support to those facing mental health challenges, Sen. Schachtner said we have to break it into two parts: The first being “treating people who are struggling right now in an effective way that gives them hope and lets them know people care,” and secondly, “that we know their names.”

“It’s important for us to know people who have struggled with mental health; to be able to put a face to it and normalize it. You can be a lawyer, doctor, teacher, or journalist and still struggle with mental health. You have to empower people,” said Sen. Schachtner.

Normalizing mental health within healthcare

Since Western Wisconsin Health opened its doors in Baldwin, it has emphasized behavioral health. The hospital has a full-service out-patient program and has worked to integrate behavioral health into every realm of its services.

“We want to make sure that people know when they come here, behavioral health is just a part of the whole hospital; it’s not an unusual thing. We screen everyone for depression and anxiety when they come into the building, regardless of why they are here,” said Dr. Chris Babbitt, a clinical psychologist and the Director of Behavioral Health Services at Western Wisconsin Health. “We’re trying to capture the needs of anyone who comes in, rather than assuming their needs if they come in for behavioral health versus if they’re here for a physical or an X-Ray. We want people to know that this is a routine part of healthcare.”

Although Dr. Babbitt commented on the number of private practices exploding in St. Croix County, he said that the access issue is still a frustrating matter. “There are more services on the western side of St. Croix County, but fewer services as you enter more rural areas. We felt like Western Wisconsin Health was a good space in the middle to try to help people of the county, but there is still a shortage of psychiatrists.”

For farmers in St. Croix County, the need for mental health services have not been adequately addressed. Jeff Ditzenberger, a Wisconsin farmer who created a support group for farmers struggling with mental health (TUGS), notes that in the past decade, the state has not acted to offer the mental health support farmers need.

“The calls and text messages and voicemails and stuff I get on a daily basis have increased by 75, 80 percent from what I’m used to," Ditzenberger said. "Farmers didn’t want to talk about it themselves before and now they're at that point where they're just like. 'I've got to have an outlet that I can talk to, that can help me deal with this."

Rising numbers of trauma-induced anxiety in St. Croix County and a slow-moving legislature

Dr. Babbitt is a Child Psychologist by training, and noted that he has been most surprised by the amount of elementary school-aged children he sees in his practice. “There is a lot of trauma in children under 12. Families are in really bad shape. We need to do a much better job supporting families and giving parents the support they need to raise their kids.” Various forms of anxiety disorders are the top concern of this age group.

Within the conversation of mental health, Dr. Babbitt emphasized that we have a long way to go. “We are getting better at recognizing it and treating it but we have a lot of room for growth. We are going to have to have a lot of collaboration between people to make this work.”

The issue of mental health must be seen as a bi-partisan issue to reach comprehensive care. Dr. Babbitt said he hopes mental health never becomes a party-specific issue.

The lack of emergency beds and the need for help

The biggest challenge in St. Croix County today is the lack of emergency hospital beds. Many times when someone is experiencing a mental health crisis there is nowhere else to send people but across the state to Winnebago Mental Health Institute in Oshkosh.

Dr. Babbitt described the Winnebago Mental Health Institute as “overflooding” with “quick turnaround.” “It’s a mad scramble to check if anyone has an open bed; we do not have our act together on this matter. It gets really tough to serve people appropriately and humanely,” said Dr. Babbitt.

An increase of emergency beds in the county would impact the county positively according to Dr. Babbitt. “If we cannot get the beds, what is the alternative? Would there be a middle ground between out and in-patient care? If we can find a way to put even a few beds on this side of the state it would help enormously.”

Sen. Schachtner also talked about the lack of emergency beds and the impact they have had on St. Croix County. “Because of the lack of beds, because of the lack of spaces, and because it doesn’t pay enough – that is the whole thing. It all comes down to money. We have to figure out what our priorities are. When you look at society as a whole, we are all impacted by mental health illness and addiction, whether it’s financially, emotionally, or community-wise. When is enough, enough, and we look at it and say here is the right answer? When you look at the big picture of it, it really is about education, awareness, prevention, and access.”

Sen. Schachter has introduced legislation to provide funding for crisis intervention programs across Northwestern Wisconsin that would provide preemptive healthcare services and lessen the demand for emergency hospital beds. “If you look at where we were, to where we are, to where we are going to be, it’s going to be a slow process to get there. In the meantime, there are people who are struggling in deep crisis that need help today,” said Sen. Schachtner.

“There are a lot of complexities that go on with the mental health conversation that we are not willing to talk about. Until we are willing to address each and every one of those topics, we unfortunately will keep fighting this fight because it is so big. This is an epidemic. It’s huge,” said Sen. Schatchner. “Life is so fragile, why are we doing things to make it so hard on people? Who are we to say what is normal? Who am I to say who can and cannot get access to mental health treatment?”

Because of the lack of crisis intervention services that would preempt the need for hospital emergency beds in St. Croix County, there seems to be a continuing stigma present in areas of Wisconsin. “The stigma is not as bad, but it’s still there. For people in rural areas of the county and for farmers in particular, the stigma has not been dealt with,” said Dr. Babbitt.

Sam Stroozas