Mental Health Emergency Center Celebrates One-Year Anniversary

The Mental Health Emergency Center (MHEC), Milwaukee’s state-of-the-art psychiatric emergency department, celebrates one year of operation as of September 2023. Established through a unique joint venture between Milwaukee County and the area’s four health systems – Aurora Health Care, Ascension Wisconsin, Children’s Wisconsin, and Froedtert Health – MHEC offers 24/7/365 emergency mental health assessment, stabilization, treatment, and transition care management for children, adolescents, and adults experiencing a mental health emergency. The goal is for patients to receive timely emergency treatment and to facilitate their transfer to the next appropriate level of mental health service for continuing care.

In its first year of operation, MHEC has had over 7,000 visits – with nearly the same number of voluntary and involuntary (emergency detention) visits, consistent with the experience at the previous Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Services (BHS) psychiatric emergency department. . The vast majority of patients served live in zip codes proximate to the facility, which is located at 525 N 12th Street on Milwaukee’s north side. The emergency center was intentionally located in this neighborhood to ensure it was convenient to access for patients and families as well as county-wide law enforcement who often accompany patients to the center. 

“Increased access to mental health resources – including emergency mental health services – has been identified as an important need in local community health assessments for years. By creating this specialty center and prioritizing a location that is embedded in the community, we make it easier for people to make the decision and take action to get help,” said Julie Owen, MD, MBA, Chief Medical Offer, MHEC. “And with a staff of dedicated mental health professionals, MHEC is providing a level of care not found in other settings. We have created a clinical center of excellence with a high standard of care for individuals during a difficult time.”

MHEC has successfully recruited a full team of 70 employees, including expert psychiatrists. Additionally, 60% of staff are representative of the racial and ethnic backgrounds of the clients served to facilitate culturally competent, personalized care.

MHEC is a critical piece of a decade-long endeavor to improve the mental health delivery system in Milwaukee County. The Milwaukee County BHS hospital, located in Wauwatosa for more than 140 years, permanently closed its emergency department and inpatient hospital on September 15, 2022, transitioning emergency services to the MHEC, and high acuity inpatient services to Granite Hills Hospital and other inpatient receiving facilities. Concurrently, BHS is working to expand community-based services, including mobile crisis teams, walk-in access clinics co-located at select Federally Qualified Health Centers, and outpatient care for youth. This new care delivery model creates easier access to care and the expansion of mental and behavioral health services for county residents.

Aurora Health Care serves as the manager of MHEC and is responsible for the employment of the physicians and staff, as well as the day-to-day operations under the direction of the joint venture’s Board of Directors. Aurora Health Care is the largest provider of mental health services in the state and has brought significant clinical, patient service, and operational expertise to the operations of the facility and broader delivery system as well.

Primary funders of MHEC include Aurora Health Care, Ascension Wisconsin, Children’s Wisconsin, Froedtert Health, and Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Services. MHEC also received a Community Project Funding/Congressional Direct Spending grant award through the Health Resources and Services Administration, facilitated by Senator Baldwin, State of WI ARPA funding facilitated by Governor Evers, and donations from Rogers Behavioral Health, the Zilber Family Foundation, and the Milwaukee Mental Health Consultants/Irving H. Raffe Fund at the Greater Milwaukee Foundation.