Gov. Tony Evers in January declared 2023 the “Year of Mental Health,” proposing more than $500 million for mental health initiatives in his 2023-25 biennial budget, with $17 million designated for alternatives to emergency detention.
“The state of mental health in Wisconsin is a quiet, burgeoning crisis that I believe will have catastrophic consequences for generations if we don’t treat it with the urgency it requires,” Evers said during his State of the State address.
Republican lawmakers slashed Evers’ $500 million proposal by more than 90%, leaving $36 million for new mental health-related spending over the biennium. Of the remaining funds, $10 million was earmarked for Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services (DHS) to implement a grant program to support crisis facilities.
Months later, Republican Sen. Howard Marklein of Spring Green, Rep. Clint Moses of Menomonie, Sen. Jesse James of Altoona and Rep. Rob Summerfield of Bloomer, authored the Crisis Urgent Care and Observation Centers bill.
The legislation proposes a framework for DHS to issue certifications for new 24/7 regional mental health facilities that focus on reducing the amount of time officers spend with individuals in mental health crises.
The Badger State Sheriffs’ Association, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the Wisconsin Counties Association and the Wisconsin Sheriffs’ and Deputy Sheriffs’ Association helped craft the bill alongside DHS and Republican lawmakers.
The current crisis response in Wisconsin
Police officers in both rural and urban areas across the state often respond to mental health calls, where they work to de-escalate situations and safely transport patients to local hospitals.
If local hospitals are full, Wisconsinites sometimes spend hours handcuffed in the back of squad cars while they are driven to the Winnebago Mental Health Institute, according to Wisconsin Watch.
The only other state-run mental health institute in the state is the Mendota Mental Health Institute in Madison, which according to DHS “primarily serves men in need of court-ordered mental health treatment.
When law enforcement believes individuals in mental health crises pose a significant risk of harm to themselves or others, they place individuals under emergency detention.
“If it gets to that point, that means that person is handcuffed, they’re in custody, they are not free to leave,” James, an active law enforcement officer and a District 23 senator, told The Daily Cardinal. “Their rights are stripped from them, and at that point they are in [police] custody.”
All emergency detention cases must go through a medical clearance process regardless of where they go.
“If we can create regional centers where we can keep our people more localized and regional than having to transport across the state, that’s a huge win for our families and a huge win for our kids,” James said.
GOP promptly backs mental health initiatives
Marklein, lead author on the bill, told the Cardinal he has been working with DHS and stakeholders on options to address the issue for several years.
“Nobody wants people in crisis to sit in a police car for hours on the way to the Winnebago Mental Health Institute,” Marklein said in a statement to the Cardinal on Tuesday. “We do not want people in crisis to be far from home.”
Marklein added that Wisconsin must adopt the “Crisis Now” model. This model for mental health care is a national guideline for crisis care services to provide immediate help to individuals in distress. Crisis Now combines regional or statewide crisis call centers with 24/7 mobile crisis support services that can be deployed when needed.
“The Crisis Now model is the ideal solution to this problem” Marklein said. “People in crisis need services and support, not three hours in the back of a police car.”
The Badger State Sheriffs’ Association, a group made up of all 72 police chiefs in Wisconsin, strongly support the bill, claiming there is a need for increased mental health services in the state.
“The longer individuals are ‘in custody’ of law enforcement, the longer it takes for them to be able to begin the recovery and healing process they need,” Dale Schmidt, Badger State Sheriffs’ Association president, said in a statement to the Cardinal.
The new facilities proposed aim to change this, serving as “one-stop shops” for individuals experiencing mental health crises. Facilities will accept both voluntary and involuntary drop-offs by friends, family members, EMS or law enforcement for short-term stays of five days or less.
The Crisis Urgent Care and Observation Centers bill is currently out for co-sponsorship in the Senate and the Assembly. Although it hasn’t yet been scheduled for a committee hearing in the Assembly or Senate, authors of the bill believe “there will be true bipartisan support.”
James, the only active law enforcement officer in the Legislature, recalled his first-hand experiences of accompanying crisis responses.
“Anytime I get a mental health call or a suicidal subject call, my heart goes into my stomach. I’m always thinking, I’m going to have to go to Winnebago,” he said. “There was one case I was involved with in Chippewa County. The deputy that took this young lady that we dealt with — who was 12 years old — was in the hospital for 19 hours.”