Data, collaboration fuel regional momentum to improve mental health

May 30, 2023 
By Erika Ritchie
Greater Green Bay Community Foundation

Brown County is experiencing a momentum shift around mental health resources. There is significant community investment and collaboration with local healthcare systems and numerous nonprofit agencies offering mental health services.

Challenges like timely access to care persist. The resources and partnerships now in place are providing for a more nimble response.

Sharla Baenen is Chief Operating Officer at Bellin Health. She sees a combination of factors at play in the ongoing crisis, including increased demand from residents here and in neighboring communities.

“Brown County is a catchment location for many other communities that are not as rich in mental health resources,” said Baenen. “As a result, there is even greater demand for services, creating greater delays for all accessing care.”


The ratio of residents to mental health providers in Brown County is 426:1 according to County Health Rankings. It has seen steady improvement across each of the last five years.

In sharp contrast are the numbers from neighboring rural counties. The resident-to-provider ratio in Oconto County, for example, is a staggering 2,811:1.

“Local capacity is a huge challenge,” said Reba Rice, CEO of NorthLakes Community Clinic, which serves Oconto County. “Most therapists are full and not taking new clients.”

With support from the Greater Green Bay Community Foundation and others, the Oconto clinic is planning to add two Community Health Workers in the next three years. These workers will connect residents in rural communities to telehealth and other resources.

“Community Health Workers can bridge any gap – if services are not immediately available – by working with people to address some of their unmet social needs, which often negatively impact their emotional and physical health,” said Rice.

Healthcare systems across the region are invested in solutions that will allow them to find and retain the workforce necessary to meet demand.

“We are in great need of physicians, mental health therapists, nurses, and others to continue to support and improve access,” said Baenen. “The shortage of workforce only makes this more challenging.”

Knowing the demand, Bellin and others are already training the next generation of therapists, with programs that scale up the workforce while also meeting today’s needs.

Image courtesy Foundations Health & Wholeness

Foundations Health & Wholeness is a nonprofit based in Green Bay providing mental health services, programming, and foster care support. Its Resident Training Program sends degreed mental health professionals into the community to provide services at partnering nonprofits, while earning the supervised hours needed for professional licensure.

“We embed them in the homeless shelters, some schools, and the Aging and Disability Resource Center,” said Ryan Good, Foundations President & CEO. “They’re able to make it more affordable for the organizations to serve the uninsured or underinsured in the community, and during that time they get a lot of experience.”

Good says every resident who has graduated has stayed in the community or Fox Valley.


For those not already connected to community resources, the wait time to see a licensed therapist creates a major gap in support. This can potentially lead to mental health problems becoming worse, which has challenged providers to get creative.

Foundations launched its Dudes & T.A.C.O.S. initiative in Fall 2022 to provide men with opportunities for connection and support outside of traditional counseling. As the name suggests, each session includes tacos as well as an activity like hiking, pickleball, or bowling to facilitate relaxed and open conversation.

“Men are 3-4 times more likely than women to complete suicide and much less likely to seek out help,” said Good. “This work has been really well attended, and deeper connections among the dudes are evident.”

Community investment and existing partnerships are also working to enhance access for children and teens. Foundations, Family Services of Northeast Wisconsin, and Howe Community Resource Center are just a few of the organizations partnering with school districts to provide and expand school-based mental health initiatives.

Baenen says she’s proud to see competitive walls lowered for the greater good. Coalitions like Connections for Mental Wellness, which both she and Good are involved with, have created space for providers to work together toward constructive solutions.

“There is a strong commitment to continue to improve mental well-being in our community,” said Baenen. “We also have much more access to data through the Clinical Information System (CIS), the LIFE Study and the well-being study from Wello.”

As needs change and evolve, community data will continue to sharpen improvements and add to the momentum for long-term improvements across systems.

The Community Foundation is committed to investing in research and increasing access to the data that already exists. The Greater Green Bay Community Hub is a free online resource that allows anyone to gain a better understanding of the issues. It is supported by the Foundation in partnership with Brown County United Way.

The community will get an updated picture of mental health later this year. Wello will begin conducting its 2023 Health and Wellbeing survey in July, the nonprofit’s third assessment of community well-being.


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