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The mental health unit at Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare is “filling a need that would otherwise be unmet in the community,” but we struggle to understand what that means and what that looks like.

At the heart of the state and federal reports — which were the result of a survey done in May that came out earlier this month — are staff shortages that didn’t meet Wheaton’s own internal policy standards and jeopardized patient and staff safety.

What has changed since May?

The state and federal government are not the only ones to have noted these deficiencies in our mental health system. Police officers have voiced frustration in the criminal complaints when the mental health unit was short-staffed and not accepting patients. Nurses have called for a state-run hospital because they have are being asked to care for sex offenders and being sexually assaulted. Kenosha County, which relies on Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare’s mental health unit for inpatient care, has also seen skyrocketing costs because of a bed shortage.

And while Wheaton has started to shore up its issues with the state and federal government and has taken on a plan of correction, there’s a need for assurances from Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare and Racine County administrators that these issues are behind us. We know these complex issues have no magic cure. Still, we argue that these problems are also the product of failing state laws and county procedures about how we pick and choose who gets into a crisis-centered system of care. This is largely because we have failed as a community and a state to recognize the importance of investing in a strong mental health system.

Racine County Executive Jonathan Delegrave said they are working with Wheaton to get those issues ironed out, and we want transparency during that process.

“The County and Wheaton need to partner together to make it right for those in need,” Delagrave said. “We had concerns about Wheaton, but we are not taking an adversarial position with them because it doesn’t help the consumers in need. We’re partnering with them to help solve these problems so that we can come out of this stronger.”

We agree with Delagrave’s approach, but we have noted a number of issues that are not easily addressed in six months.

Staffing, Safety are the keys

In a story we wrote in November, a man was taken into custody and transported to Wheaton Franciscan St. Mary’s for a psychological evaluation. The Racine County Human Services Department made several alternative treatment suggestions, but police say they couldn’t sign on because of the man’s violent nature and his wish to “commit suicide by cop.” Instead, they had to transport the man to the Racine County Jail, and deputies there were advised of the man’s suicidal nature. In the final paragraph of the man’s complaint, the officer states: “While the actions displayed by (the man) were criminal, (the man) would be better served as a mental health consumer, by a Chapter 51. A look at the rules governing Chapter 51 needs to take place to better help persons like (the man).”

In the state survey, one of the nurses told the state that sexual assaults between patients happened frequently.

Here’s what we found:

A man sexually assaulted three nurses and one patient from Feb. 26 through March 3 of this year after he was found to be a threat to himself or others by Milwaukee County, according to a report by the Racine Police Department. The supervisor of the unit told police that the man was “far too problematic for their facility and belonged in a state institution” rather than the Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare mental health unit.

Nurses quoted in state survey said they often don’t feel safe at work because of chronic staffing shortages of both nurses and doctors. How do we attract professionals to a system that fails to keep staff and patients safe?

Another man, who had a pending second degree sexual assault charge from 2012, was admitted to Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare inpatient mental health unit in 2014. Placed in a less secure part of the facility, he touched another patient’s breasts. She told the police she punched the man because she was a victim of past abuse “and would never let anyone put their hands on her again.” Hours later he did the same thing to another patient, which was reported the next day, according the Racine Police Department report. When the patients came forward, the man was moved to the psychiatric intensive care unit.

When we talk to mental health professionals, they often shrug and say: ‘It’s all we have.'” That answer is unacceptable because professionals and patients are at risk. We should not be okay with deficiencies in our mental healthcare system when it plays such a critical role in every corner of our community.

Still, people are often afraid to talk because they don’t want to lose their jobs or families don’t want to come forward about their loved one’s experience because they don’t want to lose the care they need. But we argue that we cannot afford silence at a time when people are being turned away from getting necessary care and the people we trust to care for others are unsafe. We need accountability, action and leadership on these issues.

We must focus on building an environment where compassion and safety are at the core of the comprehensive mental health care patients, their families and the doctors, nurses and staff members need and deserve.

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Denise Lockwood has an extensive background in traditional and non-traditional media. She has written for Patch.com, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine and the Kenosha News.