As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the need for mental health services is on the rise. But even before the pandemic became widespread, the Aurora West Allis Medical Center Board recognized the growing need for mental health services in the community.
“There is a shortage of psychiatrists and mental health professionals. People were waiting months to get an appointment,” explained Mary Hook, board member and chair of the philanthropy committee. “The board collaborated with mental health and clinic leaders to open a new position for a full-time mental health professional and a creative way to fill it.”
Every year, the board leads a fundraising effort for patient-centered projects that don’t fit into the operations budget. So, board members decided to raise funds through the Evening of Promise event for a scholarship that would cover tuition and clinical training costs to support a nurse practitioner to return to school for specialty training to earn a Psychiatric Nursing Certificate.
“We wanted to utilize the nurse practitioner in a primary care role,” said Mary. “Some people aren’t comfortable going to behavioral health specialists and would rather bring up their concerns within a primary care setting.”
The board and clinic leaders found its candidate in Paula Ulch, who’d spent the last 20 years working as an advanced practice community-based nurse case manager. In that role, she helped people with mental health issues navigate the health care system.
“I’ve always been a proponent of mental health care,” shared Paula. “The stigma troubles me. Mental health should be treated the same as physical health. I want to normalize mental health disorders and help patients understand they’re not crazy or weak. It’s not a reflection on their personality; it’s a brain disorder just like any other disorder.”
Paula made the decision to go back to school and earn her Post-Masters Psychiatric Nursing Certificate so she could work directly with patients and help them when they need it most.
“Sadly, access to mental health services is limited,” said Paula. “We’d work with a patient to get a referral to see a psychiatrist, but then he or she would be told the next appointment was six to nine months out – that’s true across the country. These people are hurting and in need of treatment and unable to get it for a very long time.”
Paula is now based at Aurora Health Center-Six Points, West Allis, where she sees patients for medication management of behavioral health diagnoses in virtual or in-person visits. Paula also collaborates with the clinic primary care physicians on medications and care plans. The impact on the community is profound.
“Patients don’t have to wait months for an appointment, and I am available to serve as a resource to the primary care physicians,” said Paula. “Not every patient is open to being seen by behavioral health, but they can still get appropriate treatment.”
Patients in need now have access to this specialized and much-needed care because of the generous support of donors.
“It’s a wonderful example of how donors are making a difference for our community every day,” shared Mary.
Paula added, “I would not be here without the support of donors. The Aurora West Allis Medical Center Board saw the need and listened to providers who advocated for greater access to mental health care. I’m one of the only full-time behavioral health prescribers in the area. I’m so grateful to our donors and so glad to be here for our community.”
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