In September 1999, a man with untreated mental illness shot and killed seven people before dying by suicide at a Baptist church in Fort Worth, Texas. Seeing an obvious problem, the mayor there tasked mental health providers with improving the network of service so no one else fell through the cracks.
The tragedy galvanized the community, and led to a successful mental health coalition that now serves as a model for northeast Wisconsin’s own network of mental health stakeholders.
“The guy really didn’t have the appropriate access to services,” said Paula Morgen, community health manager at ThedaCare and one of 10 people from the Fox Valley who visited Fort Worth in 2010 to learn about the Mental Health Connection of Tarrant County.
Two more trips and many phone calls later, the Northeast Wisconsin Mental Health Connection has taken its name and much more from Tarrant County’s collaborative approach to mental health. Leaders here say we’re about 10 years behind the Mental Health Connection of Tarrant County but can benefit from that organization’s lessons learned along the way.
Think of it as a mentor, a sister city of sorts, in mental health.
“They had taken collaboration to the Nth degree,” said Sue Jungen, another of the visitors, who was at the time a leader in mental health services for Affinity Health System.
Like the Texas organization, the N.E.W. Mental Health Connection pulls stakeholders from hospitals, counties, philanthropic organizations, schools and nonprofits to make sure people serving those with mental health needs are talking to each other, and providing care the best way they can.
Making the ‘Connection’
While Tarrant County was healing from the mass shooting, and working to improve mental health services in response, the Fox Valley was working to better collaborate its own services.
A 2007 ThedaCare Community Health Action Team “Plunge” on mental health barriers showed leaders in the field that there was work to do locally. Hospitals and nonprofits didn’t know patients were getting the best possible mental health care because they didn’t have a universal way of knowing what was available, Morgen said.
Jungen said that mental health leaders knew they needed to streamline, and they set out to find a model. Time and time again, Tarrant County came up.
“Finally we were like, ‘Why the heck don’t we just go there,'” Jungen said.
The first 10-member Wisconsin delegation trip to Tarrant County in 2010 involved “deep dives” for each Wisconsinite to learn about different parts of Tarrant County’s approach, like its No Wrong Door referral system, which has been adopted here; solutions for low-income patients; and collaborations with schools.
The group here is also hoping to learn from Tarrant County’s grant success â€” the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has awarded it more than $20 million in funding in recent years. The grants are matched with community funds, bringing the total investment in Tarrant County to more than $40 million.
“Because we are a collaboration and have so many different perspectives, like they do, we’re constantly in communication with each other so it’s pretty easy to stay on top of what the trends are and the major challenges are,” said Patsy Thomas, president of Mental Health Connection of Tarrant County.
Beth Clay, executive director of N.E.W. Mental Health Connection, said it also has to do with the Texas group researching and understanding its region and the problems there.
“They’re a really sure bet,” she said. “They really understand their community. They really have a deep appreciation of why they are the things they are. So when they come up and propose solutions, they’re really trustworthy solutions.”
The relationship has only grown from that first 2010 trip.
Clay and another N.E.W. board member returned down South in February and attended a board meeting. It’s been so helpful, Clay said, that she’s now thinking of making an annual trip. In the meantime, she joked she’s got Thomas on speed dial.
Clay is cautious, though, about how many of Tarrant County’s ideas can be adapted locally. Fort Worth, after all, is home to nearly 800,000 people. The N.E.W. coalition spans several counties and smaller cities.
“We’re not Tarrant County,” she said. “Even though we can learn from them and pull ideas from them, we are very rooted in the history of our community, the culture of our community.”