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Kenosha County's mental health care provider shortage affects entire community

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Kenosha County has a shortage of mental health care providers, and local therapists say they see the need every day.

Dr. Shalini Varma, 7400 60th Ave., keeps open slots on her schedule for last-minute emergency appointments, but agreed that at many other clinics, patients might have to wait weeks before they are seen.

“Some clinics say, ‘Here are some meds, see you in a month.’ That’s just not acceptable,” Varma said. “There are some patients I see two times every week. If we’re adjusting a medication or you’re thinking about harming yourself, you need more help.”

The federal government officially designates Kenosha County as a “health professional shortage area,” and the state of Wisconsin estimates that Kenosha County needs at least 11 more full-time mental health care professionals to “significantly reduce” shortages.

Dr. Lakeia Jones is the founder of AMRI Counseling Services, 6321 23rd Ave. Her first clinic was in Milwaukee, but she opened a second clinic in Kenosha a few years ago because so many of her patients were driving from here to Milwaukee.

“We knew more services were needed,” Jones said. “I hear people say, ‘I tried to get into this clinic and I couldn’t’ or ‘This place had such a long waiting list.’”

The Wisconsin Department of Health estimates that about 19 percent of adults in the state suffer from mental health issues, and about 4.6 percent suffer from a serious mental illness.

In Kenosha County, that means 23,730 adults are suffering from some kind of mental health issue, and 5,745 have a serious mental illness. Kenosha County children also need help; there are 6,632 kids with mental health issues here and 3,474 with serious emotional disorders.

You might think that the lack of mental health professionals doesn’t affect you, but Varma said it might be affecting your neighbor, a co-worker or a loved one. Even if you are not personally connected to someone with a mental health issue, untreated mental problems increase health care costs for everyone. An untreated mental illness can build to a crisis point and then the patient is treated in an expensive emergency room instead of a therapist’s office; a 2012 study found that the average psychiatric ER patient cost the hospital $2,264.

“A lot of people fall into those holes,” Varma said. “They might end up homeless, criminals, in an emergency room. All those are outcomes that cost the community.”

The need to recruit more people into mental health jobs is on Jones’ radar, and she works actively to attract more therapists. Her Kenosha clinic currently has two interns and her Milwaukee clinic has four.

“They are pretty much guaranteed a position with us if they do well,” she said.

Jones and Varma agreed that mental health care is a rewarding profession. Varma actually started off her medical career in anesthesiology and internal medicine, but realized that she wanted and needed to help patients in a more personal way.

“I was really drawn to this field,” she said. “I am able to look at people from a biology angle, psychology, sociology. I can become an advocate for them. I can help them with the cost of their medications. I can talk with other doctors on their behalf. It’s not just a narrow focus.”

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