The mental health crisis unit at the La Crosse County Human Services Department provides vital support to our community, 365-days-a-year.
A team of mental health crisis responders works round the clock in La Crosse County to support individuals through mental health crises, to help connect family members to resources, or simply to listen.
“What I wish the community knew is that the majority of people struggling with their mental health are not dangerous,” said Angie Smith. “They are going through some difficult stuff and they need support.”
Smith is a supervisor at the crisis unit, which is part of the integrated recovery and support services program at the La Crosse County Human Services Department. The crisis team is available 24-hour-a -day, 365-day-a-year, and can be reached by dialing 784-HELP (4357). Most of the calls to the unit are handled over the phone. Last year, the team handled over 15,000 calls. The unit also responds in-person when needed and made 2,881 face-to-face visits in 2019.
“Everybody has got a story to tell and the reason they are acting a certain way is because they are trying to express something,” said Sam Seefeld, who is also a supervisor with the crisis unit. "It’s really part of our role to help them get it out and provide them with the right resources at the right time.”
The crisis unit includes four social workers, a crisis therapist, four crisis specialists and 10 part-time crisis responders. Not all counties in Wisconsin have a mobile crisis team. Many have contracted out part of their emergency mental health programs or have limited response in the overnight hours, Seefeld said.
The unit works closely with local health care providers, who often refer individuals to the program, and with police. In fact, the crisis team is currently working on developing a co-responder model with the La Crosse Police Department.
Smith explained that the co-responder model would see crisis responders ride with police on calls that could involve someone experiencing a mental health crisis. This would mean having a dedicated mental health professional on the scene with police. Planning for the proposed new system is still at an early stage.
“This is a great initiative that we’re excited about and is really the culmination of our longstanding relationship with local law enforcement,” Smith said. “We think the collaboration is key to keep responders safe while putting mental health at the forefront as our goal.”
The crisis unit is certified as an emergency mental health program by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. Beyond responding to emergencies, the unit’s social workers and therapists can also engage with individuals for three to six months of crisis case management. Responders also often work to create a safety plan for clients, with clear steps for how to identify and manage a crisis. Anyone can receive counseling and therapeutic services through the program, which offers sliding scale fees to those who qualify.
Smith noted that friends or relatives of people with mental health issues are encouraged to call the unit, in addition to people who need support for their own mental health.
“I always encourage loved ones to call, even for support for themselves because dealing with a loved one with a mental health disorder can be very stressful,” she said. “We have resources we can connect them to.”
The philosophy of the crisis program is to engage the individual with the least restrictive measures as possible while treating people with dignity and respect. Or, more simply put, the program offers a trained professional to talk to, any time of the day or night.
“There’s always somebody here to help, it’s just a matter of reaching out,” Seefeld said. “Things do have the opportunity to get better, it’s just a matter of time and engagement.”
You can learn more about the emergency mental health and other La Crosse County Human Services programs at lacrossecounty.org/humanservices.
*Pictured above are La Crosse County Human Services Department crisis specialists Hans Wagner, Anthony Larson and Tanya Kessen.