Neil Heinen: Mental health matters

The Meriter Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Hospital offers a crucial service that needs support
Neil Heinen: Mental health matters

By Neil Heinen

One of the things that has really stuck out for me in the last ten years of following efforts to educate our children is the challenge of dealing with the mental health of these kids. Nearly every discussion of school readiness, achievement and preparation for college or career includes serious concerns for the cognitive, behavioral and emotional well-being of students. One report estimates as many as one in twenty students in Madison’s public schools has significant mental health concerns that affect his or her ability to learn. That starts to feel very much like a crisis. And like so many issues involving children, unless you are a parent with a mentally ill child you’d likely not know that there is a serious shortage of services for these kids, including preventative and primary care. While the system has responded to needs of kids with physical disabilities, and more recently kids with autism, it is not giving the same attention and resources to children with mental illnesses. To some degree that is likely the result of a cultural lack of knowledge about mental illness and the bias and stigma that misunderstanding can lead to.

The start to a remedy for this issue is a community campaign in collaboration with our schools. And that’s another conversation, other than to say that, like a lot of similar issues right now, Madison Metropolitan School District superintendent Jen Cheatham is on it. But this particular issue was on my mind a few weeks ago when I visited the Meriter Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Hospital tucked away on a beautiful and serene campus off of Raymond Road not far from our offices here at Madison Magazine.

WISC news anchor Susan Siman and I accepted an invitation to visit the facility in advance of an anniversary event next month. The tour and conversation with hospital staff were eye openers for me. I spent four important years of my life as an aide at the Milwaukee Psychiatric Hospital in the early ’70s. The hospital had an adolescent unit, and a school on the grounds, and both were considered pretty cutting edge for the time. A lot has changed since then.

Suffice to say I was very impressed with the range of therapeutic activities available at the Meriter facility, the well-thought-out environment and, of course, the caring, professional but warm and compassionate staff of doctors and nurses. There are twenty beds, eight for children and twelve for adolescents. But, and this was a surprise, those are the only twenty beds in south central Wisconsin this side of Rogers Memorial Hospital in Oconomowoc. The average length of stay at Meriter CAP Hospital is six days. Still, twenty beds for an area of eight counties or more is a problem. Demand far outstrips supply.

The first year the facility opened, in 2004, 461 patients were treated. Last year, 769 patients were admitted and that’s a thirty-six-percent increase since 2009. No patients are turned away due to ability to pay, and almost fifty percent of patients served are Medicaid eligible. Here’s another surprise: Meriter CAP Hospital is perhaps the best example of collaborative health care in the greater Madison region. UW and Dean docs treat patients there. In fact, it’s a training site for UW medical students and child and adolescent psychiatry residents. Only eight percent of patients are insured by Physicians Plus. This place is a gem, a true community asset. But it needs help.

Meriter Child and Adolescent Hospital is funded primarily through the Meriter Foundation. The hospital itself does not produce a positive operating margin. Generous donors and community support are essential. There’s a benefit dinner celebrating the tenth anniversary of the hospital on Sunday, November 2, at L’Etoile. Tory Miller’s cooking and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra is performing. Tickets are available at, or by calling (608) 417-5300. Mental illness makes it tough for kids to learn. Meriter is helping kids with mental illness. We can help both.

Neil P. Heinen is the editorial director of Madison Magazine.

Find more of Heinen’s columns here.