Working to address mental health issues in the Marathon County Jail

“In a jail setting it becomes all that more difficult to get inmates those services”
Published: May. 4, 2022 at 6:53 PM CDT
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - Since March of 2020, officials with the Marathon County Sheriff’s Department say they’ve seen an increased need at the jail for mental health services.

“We started noticing a difference in our inmates and the struggles that they were having,” Chief Deputy Chad Billeb said.

During the height of the pandemic, those services were harder to get into the jail.

“In a jail setting it becomes all that more difficult to get inmates those services,” Chief Deputy Billeb said.

North Central Health Care provides mental health services to the jail.

Danielle Behrens is a Mental Health Substance Abuse Therapist, who works within the jail to help address the needs of the inmates.

“We were doing a lot more crisis work than we were doing mental health maintenance work or referral work,” she said of her duties during the pandemic.

Part of Behrens’ job is referring inmates in crisis to outside mental health services.

We asked the Marathon County Jail and North Central Health Care for data showing how many referrals to outside services are issued for inmates.

Neither had a record of that information.

Both entities hope to address some of the jail population’s mental health issues with new mental health-centric programming now available at the jail.

“We go into the jail [with] an AODA DBT Group, which is Dialectic Behavioral Therapy, specifically for substance use disorder for the clients that struggle with any type of addiction-based issues within the jail,” Heidi Kleinschmidt, an AODA Coordinator with North Central Health Care said.

That program started in December 2021.

“This was something that we wanted to get into the jails for some time,” Kleinschmidt said.

Meantime, Chief Deputy Billeb says jail staff find themselves stretched thin.

“You have to be on rounds, you have to get inmates their meals, their medications. those are all things that we do daily,” he explained, “get them to programming and other services. But at the same time, you have nine inmates who you’re responsible for doing 15-minute checks on, or more frequent checks, to make sure they’re doing well and that they’re not doing self-harm. "

In the Marathon County Jail, as many as nine people at a time have been on suicide watch.

That’s an additional duty tacked onto jail staff’s 12-hour shifts.

“It becomes a strain on them when that wasn’t something that we were dealing with pre-pandemic, to the extent that we are now,” Chief Deputy Billeb said.

Behrens has also noticed the trend.

“If we can’t keep the individual safe, then we are transferring to another facility, hospital, in order to get mental health stabilized. We were seeing a higher abundance of those types of cases after everybody was able to come back in,” she said of the state of the jail as coronavirus restrictions started to lift.

As jail and North Central Health Care Staff work to get current inmates the services they need, county officials are looking ahead.

“We look at those people that have a common nexus to the jail to mental health services, to medical services, and just law enforcement in general and see how we can intersect with them in their lives and get them the services they need,” Chief Deputy Billeb said.

Kleinschmidt hopes her programming can be a part of the solution.

“With being able to offer them this service, we’re able to teach them healthy coping skills, mindfulness skills, emotional regulation skills,” she said. “When people are being released they’ve shared with the judge that some of the skills that they learned while attending our group has been beneficial, and they continue to use it when they’re in their outside world, when they come out into the community.”

Right now, that group is only available to female inmates.

North Central Health Care hopes to add a group for men soon.

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