Addressing mental health challenges with diverse approaches for community solutions

Addressing mental health challenges with diverse approaches for community solutions

In Dane County, a community of 563,951 people, one in four adults grapple with mental illness each year, according to data provided by mental health organizations. To put this in perspective, in a room of 20 people, at least four of them are facing mental health challenges. 

The prevalence of mental health challenges has witnessed a notable surge, with a 25% increase in global rates of anxiety and depression within the first year following the onset of the pandemic, according to the World Health Organization. This alarming trend shows no signs of abating, underscoring the persistent rise in mental health diagnoses.

Amid this escalating challenge, four organizations—National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Journey Health Center, Yahara House and Dane County Sheriff’s Office—stand ready to support those facing mental health issues. From crisis intervention to outpatient care, they offer a spectrum of assistance tailored to the unique needs of the Dane County community.


NAMI is a national organization dedicated to addressing mental health challenges. Founded in Madison in 1977, NAMI is associated with 600 local affiliates and 49 state organizations. Wisconsin alone hosts 25 of these local chapters, according to Jamie Mulry, NAMI’s associate director. 

As a national organization, NAMI has the privilege of having an alliance with  both Wisconsin and the national organization, guiding advocacy efforts of NAMI in Dane County, according to Mulry. 

NAMI concentrates on three main areas: education, support and advocacy. The education branch offers classes for individuals facing mental health challenges. 

NAMI Dane County Advocacy Days. Photos Courtesy of NAMI Dane County.

“There is a lack of understanding and compassion that prevents people from seeking mental health services,” said Mulry. “We want our consumers to know that they are not alone.” 

While NAMI does not provide direct inpatient or outpatient services, they instead serve as a network of resources, guiding individuals to specific organizations. One of the resources NAMI provides are peer-led support groups for individuals and families dealing with mental illness.

“Our support groups are unique in that they are led and attended by individuals who are peers,” said Mulry. “Support groups include, adult, young adult, women’s, LGBTQIA+ and family.” 

NAMI takes pride in extending services not only to those directly affected but also to family members witnessing their loved ones cope with mental health challenges. Recognizing the diverse impact of mental health, NAMI believes everyone, regardless of the severity of their challenges, should have access to care and resources. 

Journey Health Center

Journey Health Center is a nonprofit community center focused on providing care and services to support individuals with a wide range of mental health challenges, said Nichole Wright, the chief clinical officer at Journey, who has been involved with the program for over 12 years. 

Journey stands out as a leader in delivering community-based specialty behavioral health and trauma-informed services, said Wright.

Journey mental health's building. Photo provided by Noa Chamberlain.

“We provide services across a lifespan in multiple different programs,” said Wright. “We hold the contract for Dane County for emergency services, providing 24/7 support.” 

In 2022, Journey answered 43,000+ crisis calls and served over 11,000 consumers in Dane County, according to Wright. As of September of 2023, they’ve already surpassed 44,000 crisis calls, indicating a continued increase in mental health needs. 

Journey provides mental health services for a spectrum of mental health challenges, specializing in outpatient care, according to Wright. 

“We provide services, therapy, prescribing and peer services,” said Wright. “It’s consumer-driven, so the consumer has to seek out treatment and they dictate their care.” 

In addition to providing services to those currently struggling with mental health challenges, Journey collaborates with schools to focus on early prevention. This proactive approach aims to equip students with coping skills and strategies to manage feelings and process trauma. 

In the wake of the pandemic, there has been  an increase in virtual service availability and conversations surrounding mental health challenges. Use of mental health services has increased by 39% from March 2020 to August 2022, according to researchers from the RAND Corporation and Castlight Health

“More people are asking for help and seeking out services,” said Wright. “You can get treatment quicker now, and we’re actually seeing a decrease in referrals because there are more treatment providers and virtual care options people are choosing to seek help virtually.” 

Journey prides itself on being a resource for a wide range of mental health challenges, but it remains an undeniable struggle to staff enough clinicians to serve the increasing number of people in need of care.   

Yahara House

Yahara House, a program of Journey Health Center, is a clubhouse model fostering community for mental health and wellness, specifically assisting those with mental health challenges and substance abuse, according to an anonymous member. 

“For me, it was a blessing and a godsend,” said the member, who experienced a rapid progression of symptoms, including severe anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder, that affected her ability to work. 

Following a breast cancer diagnosis in October 2021 and a long search to find the right therapist, she found Yahara House in August 2022. Despite undergoing treatment and surgeries alongside mental health challenges, she emphasizes the sense of  acceptance she found at Yahara House and how important it was to her. 

“The support has been invaluable. I don’t know what I would be doing without them,” she said. “It gives me a purpose, I have my friends, we have social activities…it feels really good.” 

She remains hopeful for an independent future and part-time job in the next year, something that she said she couldn’t have imagined had it not been for Yahara House. “They give you the tools that get you to where you want to be…they give you a sense of community. I’m more hopeful than I’ve been in a long time.” 

Dane County Sheriff’s Office

While organizations providing mental health services are crucial resources for residents facing mental health challenges, the Sheriff’s Office mental health team plays a critical role in offering assistance to individuals facing immediate mental health crises. 

Scott Herrem, one of five mental health deputies at the Sheriff’s Office, highlights the critical nature of emergency responses, in that law enforcement officers are often the first point of contact. 

“My main duties are mental health calls, that’ll be active suicidal or people calling about referrals and emergency detentions,” said Herrem. 

Beyond responding to crises, Herrem conducts follow-up calls or visits to individuals who experienced an episode, sometimes engaging in safety planning sessions.  

While mental health challenges have always existed, data indicates an increase in the number of calls received. 

“Since we’ve started tracking calls, we’ve seen an increase, with around 1,600 calls for mental health service this year… around 200 more than this time last year,” said Herrem. “I think the pandemic exacerbated issues.” 

However, he also considered that the increase may be attributed to heightened awareness and improved tracking by the department. 

Despite the ongoing challenges, Herrem recognizes that people, regardless of their mental health struggles, simply want to feel better.

“For some reason mental health treatment has such a stigma which is truly unfortunate,” said Herrem. “When you don’t feel good in your brain, it should be just as easy to get treatment as when you feel sick in your body.” 

Fighting stigma across the community

Progress has been made yet there is still work to be done in addressing mental health challenges in Dane County. The number of resources continues to increase, yet there remains a desperate need for more people to provide service to people experiencing mental health issues.

“When you have a mental illness, you often feel embarrassed, or shunned or like you can’t talk about it,” said the Yahara House member. “There are so many people who suffer from it, and a lot of people suffer in silence.” 

While there is still a lingering stigma, Dane County has witnessed a growing willingness to discuss mental health, reducing the negativity and stigma. The increasing number of affected individuals demonstrates the urgency for awareness and support. 

“We need awareness,” said the Yahara House member. “There are a number of people out there who could benefit from what I’ve benefited from.”

Mental Health signs from the annual Community Celebration that is held in commemoration of Mental Health Awareness Month each year. Photos Courtesy of NAMI Dane County.

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