It started with just a spark — an idea that would grow into something wonderful for the community.

When Rhonda Brown, founding member of the Open Door Clinic’s board of directors in Chippewa Falls, learned that the clinic’s retired psychiatrist was seeing about 15 people in four hours for mental health issues, she knew the doctor wouldn’t be able to keep up that pace for long.

“One of my fears was that he was going to say, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ and give up,” said Brown, who is also the director of Chippewa Health Improvement Partnership at St. Joseph’s Hospital. “I went to (hospital) administration and said, ‘We have to provide (free) mental health services over here.’”

Less than six months later, in July 2011 colleagues at L.E. Phillips-Libertas Treatment Center — an affiliate of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chippewa Falls — took in its first patients screened at the Open Door Clinic.

Without the collaboration, the Open Door Clinic’s psychologists would have been overworked, and the patients would have suffered. Now everyone benefits, said Mary Meyers, Open Door Clinic director since August 2012 and a former triage nurse.

“Last year 19 percent of our business was mental health,” she said.

The Open Door Clinic in Chippewa Falls counted 524 mental health visits in 2013. Sixty-six patients were referred to L.E. Phillips-Libertas Treatment Center for outpatient counseling.

“It’s been a great collaboration,” Meyers said. “(The treatment center) has been very easy to work with.”

Unpaid interns who are in their final year of schooling to become therapists, and who need a set amount of clinical hours before they are certified, see Chippewa County citizens who have little or no access to behavioral health services because of cost.

The treatment center started with two interns who needed to finish their final internship hours. Depending on the time of year, the treatment center could have up to three interns at a time. Those students are supervised by Dr. Jon Snider, psychologist and mental health clinical supervisor at the treatment center.

“We’ve always had interns here,” he said. “The problem is that they can’t do outpatient counseling because no one will pay for them because they’re not licensed yet. It was a great internship but it was missing a component.”

Snider said using interns works well for this program. Not only is there no billing for the interns to decipher, but the students who are on the cusp of graduation are able to provide a much-needed service for the community while gaining experience.

“This is the end of their journey education-wise,” Snider said. “They’re not raw recruits. They’ve already done some counseling. They’re just finishing the last stage.”

The process to get mental health services to people in need is a fairly simple one.

“It’s an important piece of mental health care for our community,” Meyers said. “It affords patients the full circle of mental health services.”

Dr. Bruce Rhoades and Dr. Gerald Gehl, both retired psychiatrists who volunteer at the Open Door Clinic, see patients and determine if they need further assistance. If so, the doctors gives referrals to the treatment center. Then the responsibility is with the patient. That person needs to make contact with the treatment center to schedule an appointment.

“They are treated like everyone else that walks through our doors,” Snider said.

Those patients receive care until either the therapist determines the treatment is complete or the patient terminates the treatment. If the patient begins receiving insurance, they still can continue with treatment with one of the licensed therapists, but their insurance or the patient would be billed.

Community need

When the state’s budget began to dwindle and the Chippewa County Department of Human Services needed to cut back, most of the prevention services were pulled, Brown said.

Pathways — a county-run outpatient clinic that dealt in Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse addictions and mental health issues — shut down abruptly and there was a gap in services provided, Brown said.

In the last three St. Joseph’s Hospital Community Needs Assessment surveys since 2006, residents identified mental health services as a top need in Chippewa County.

L.E. Phillips-Libertas Treatment Center and the Open Door Clinic are working to fill that need.

Snider said the entire program has invigorated the treatment center.

“Everyone is really energized because we get to do this. It has brought a lot of energy to our team. The exposure to these interns reminds us of how cool our jobs really are,” Snider said. “This program is probably what I’m most proud of in my career.

“It has affected the most people in a positive way.”