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Mental health care in Coulee Region better, and worse

By Mark McPherson, mmcpherson@wkbt.com
Published On: Mar 04 2014 08:51:10 PM CST
Updated On: Mar 04 2014 11:03:00 PM CST

The negative stigma surrounding mental illness can often keep people from seeking help, but once they do, just what kind of help is out there for them?

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) -

The negative stigma surrounding mental illness can often keep people from seeking help, but once they do, just what kind of help is out there for them?

In some ways mental health care in the Coulee Region has gotten better in recent years, and in some ways it's gotten worse.  Patients still struggle at times finding insurance and doctors, but health care providers are starting to change the way patients are treated for illnesses not many people like to talk about.

A new Gundersen Health System facility offers things you might not think of when it comes to a psychiatric unit, like a room to meditate, space to work out and even a fire place.  It's part of a change in the way mental illness is treated, with a greater focus on calm and dignity.  But before patients end up there, many start in a very different place.  "Mostly you go in through the emergency room, that's how you get evaluated," says Julia McDermid.  McDermid was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder and has been through the mental health system.

Like many other patients, McDermid's first stop was through the E.R.  It's common enough that Gundersen built a special area in the E.R. specifically for mental health patients.  "If you are an emergency room nurse," says Stephanie Hill, a Clinical Manager in the E.R. at Gundersen, "you are a behavioral health nurse because it's a large portion of our population."

In fact, 20% of people in the E.R. have mental health issues, which is the roughly same percentage of people in the general public struggling with mental health.  But finding care after the E.R., even in a place like the Coulee Region, can be difficult.  "We have a large variety of mental health providers in this area," says Patti Jo Severson from Gundersen, "but what's happened over the years is that access to care has been difficult."

One constant battle is getting enough coverage through insurance, but even if you are covered, some patients in the Coulee Region may have a hard time finding a doctor.  "There are some counties that don't have any psychiatrists," says Severson, "and that means that those rural, under-served counties would rely on larger counties like ours for services."

Finally, it can be difficult to admit you need help, admit you need care in a society that is still coming to terms with mental illness being like any other illness.  "It's difficult for somebody to say I have a mental illness, I live with depression and I live with bipolar disorder," says Severson, "so that we're recognized as individuals first and not our diagnosis."  "The support out there, it just isn't like some other illnesses you have, like cancer," says Tammy Anderson from Gundersen Health System, "hopefully some day that will get better, I think it already has gotten better, but we have a long way to go yet."

Mental health specialists interviewed for this story says the Coulee Region is better than many places when it comes to treatment, but we are still about average.  One specialist said we have a long way to go.

Mental and Behavioral health problems don't just affect adults.  It's estimated that 14% of teens and young people suffer a mental or behavioral health problem.

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