(Oconomowoc, Wis.) The only physician invited to speak, Jerry Halverson, M.D., FAPA, the medical director of adult services at Rogers Memorial Hospital, recently testified regarding some of the challenges for patients and physicians in Wisconsin’s mental health system. Convened by State Representative Robin Vos (R), the Speaker of Wisconsin’s Assembly, the Task Force on Mental Health is charged with examining mental health issues in Wisconsin and making recommendations to the Assembly by the end of May for possible legislation and promoting improvements. Dr. Halverson was asked to give a broad overview of mental illness to help set the stage for the Task Force moving forward.
According to Paul A. Mueller, CEO at Rogers Memorial Hospital, “The State of Wisconsin is showing responsible leadership by establishing a task force to look at this critical issue. As the go-to place for psychiatric information, Rogers will continue to support and participate in this initiative with the goal of making a difference in the lives of those struggling with mental health issues. Dr. Halverson has done an excellent job of educating this task force.”
Dr. Halverson testified regarding his experience providing direct psychiatric care for adults on inpatient units, partial hospital/day treatment programs and residential programs at Rogers Memorial Hospital, the largest provider of behavioral health services in the state. As president-elect of the Wisconsin Psychiatric Association, he spoke on behalf of Wisconsin psychiatrists, as well as the Wisconsin Medical Society, where he serves on the board of directors.
“I was asked to provide an overview of mental illness and the challenges faced by those who live with mental illness as well as the professionals who treat them,” Dr. Halverson said. “I will do that by defining mental illness, discussing how mental illnesses are diagnosed and treated, and ultimately discussing in general some of the key barriers to care and treatment of mental illnesses.”
Dr. Halverson indicated that mental illness is not a choice or a weakness; it’s a physical and emotional manifestation of diseases of the brain, which can have “minor or dire effects.” He explained that these effects can include disruptions of daily function; incapacitating personal, social and occupational impairment; and even premature death. He added that the most common mental illnesses among adults are anxiety and mood disorders, which can create complications in treating other medical diseases. Whether caused by genetics or external agents, he said these disorders can often cause alterations in the brain’s behavior as well as the chemicals the brain produces to function normally, which can lead to psychiatric symptoms.
“Mental illness does not discriminate,” he said. “It’s found in all races, genders and socioeconomic classes – everywhere in the world. In fact, the World Health Organization indicates that mental illness results in more disability in developed countries than any other group of illnesses, including cancer and heart disease.”
Dr. Halverson explained that making an accurate diagnosis can be a challenge because there are no blood tests to check for the presence of a mental illness. Currently, there are 297 possible diagnoses of mental illness with a multitude of ways the brain can fail to behave normally. Although all do not require treatment, many vary in severity and presentation. Medications, too, can be a problem because “it is as important to know when not to prescribe as when to prescribe.” He indicated that medication treatments of psychiatric illness are not “easy” and require skill and knowledge of how they interact with other medicines and diseases.
“Perhaps one of the greatest barriers to treatment is the stigma that surrounds mental health,” Dr. Halverson said. “This stigma has contributed to mental illness being seen as ‘different’ from other illnesses, even contributing to discrepancies in the way that insurance companies handle mental illness, as well as how mental health records are treated from other medical records.
“All of this further denigrates the care coordination, worsens the care that is provided, and ultimately pushes the stigma further,” Dr. Halverson concluded. “I hope that by talking about mental illness and exploring it more in future Task Force hearings, we can make progress in fighting it.”