Shortage of psychiatrists in northcentral Wisconsin leads to residency program Submitted: 02/13/2017
NORTHCENTRAL WISCONSIN - Wausau Police Department Detective Captain Matthew Barnes and his team encounter mental illness on the front line of the problem. 

"When the police are responding historically to individuals with mental health issues they're in crisis," said Barnes.

It isn't until after that person is in trouble that they can get the help they need. 

"The challenge for us is, how do we identify those individuals before they go into crisis so that they can get appropriate mental health care prior to it becoming an emergency or a crisis?" said Barnes.

The Northwoods has a severe shortage of mental health professionals, particularly psychiatrists. And when people can't get help, police are the ones to see problems first hand.

"We're in a federally designated shortage area for psychiatry, and so we've been trying to recruit increasing numbers of psychiatrists for years in this area," said North Central Health Care interim CEO Michael Loy. 

With fewer psychiatrists, primary care physicians have to step in and fill the gap, even though they aren't necessarily qualified to do so. 

"Primary care doctors are sort of the gatekeepers," said Dr. Edward Krall, director of residency training at the Medical College of Wisconsin. "They will be the first physicians most often where people will go when they are struggling. Primary care doctors don't have the training to deal with severe psychiatric disorders." 

Oftentimes primary care doctors will consult with psychiatrists over the phone because there are not enough psychiatrists to see their patients in person, but then that effort takes away time and money from the psychiatrists who could be treating their own patients. 

Psychiatrists in the Northwoods are retiring and there are not many young people here to take their place. Part of the problem rests with the lack of residency programs in the area. 

"The trend is that if you train some place you're more likely to stay there, so attracting psychiatrists and primary care doctors to northern Wisconsin where they're most needed ,where there is a real shortage, has been a longstanding problem," said Krall.

The Medical College of Wisconsin is rolling out its residency program this July with its first three residents in an effort to bring more young doctors to the Northwoods. 

"The goal is to plant the seed and hope it grows into a process of bringing people to this area and serving the needs of the communities," said Krall.

The hope is that after doing their residency program in the Wausau area, the residents will want to stay in the Northwoods to work.

"Our goal is to get more and more people to live here and provide psychiatry out of our offices, so we're trying to grow that," said Loy. 

Ultimately this will be one of the first steps towards solving the psychiatrist shortage, but of course it will take some time. 

Because there is no immediate solution, other organizations, including police departments, are also beginning programs to address the lack of mental health professionals in the Northwoods. 

"We're going to provide mental health care," said Barnes. "We have hired a therapist who will be on staff here, and we're going to provide and offer mental health therapy to individuals who are victims or crime." 

This service is part of VOCA, the Victims of Crime Act, which is a federal grant awarded through the Department of Justice in Wisconsin. It will provide mental health services to folks rather than suggesting they seek out treatment themselves.

"In this case, to not just say, 'You should go see a therapist, but to say, 'Hi, I'm the therapist. I'm here to help you.'" said Barnes. "We think there's a big difference between that, and we're really excited to get that program up and running here."  

Story By: Rose McBride

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