Local mental health respite, third in Wisconsin, opens in Menomonie

by Sarah Seifert

Laird and Welle

Executive director of Wisconsin Milkweed Alliance Kate Laird, left, and Monarch House program director Victoria Welle stand in the kitchen of Monarch House in Menomonie. The mental health and substance abuse respite house opened in north Menomonie Dec. 17.  SARAH SEIFERT, Dunn County News

MENOMONIE — Wisconsin’s third peer-run respite — a haven for people struggling with mental health or substance abuse — opened Dec. 17 in Dunn County.

The nonprofit Monarch House in north Menomonie doesn’t look like a hospital, office or institution.

Its four bedrooms are open and free to Wisconsin residents 18 or older in distress to stay for one to five days. A kitchen, art and music room, living room and office are meant to make the roomy house feel like a home, said Monarch House program director Victoria Welle.

Visitors get an unique experience: no formal treatment from a doctor or therapist, but support from their peers and freedom to come and go as they please, Welle said.

Monarch House aims to give those people time to heal, a listening ear and tools to take back into the community.

“Intentional peer support is about about prioritizing learning from one another, instead of helping,” Welle said. “We focus on building connection and understanding how people came to be in the situation they’re in, and try to get out of that fixing role and help the person … see their own strengths.”

Visits are voluntary. Potential visitors must willingly make the phone call — family members or social workers cannot place people in Monarch House — and will have a conversation with respite staff before coming to stay.

Each visitor gets a bedroom of their own. During their stay — which is free of charge — guests can make music, practice yoga, use computers, cook meals, sleep, or socialize and talk with staff.

The respite is staffed by eleven full- and part-time workers. They also run a “warmline,” a constant phone line to offer the same support to people who need it, Welle said.

The respite is fully funded by a $441,000 Wisconsin Department of Health Services grant, according to a statement from DHS.

Only six Midwest states including Wisconsin have peer-run respites to help people struggling with mental health or substance abuse.

More than 1,000 people have stayed at the Wisconsin respites, according to DHS.

Appleton and Madison host the state’s other respites. A fourth and fifth may be on the horizon in Milwaukee, said Kate Laird, executive director of the respite’s parent organization, Wisconsin Milkweed Alliance.

Menomonie’s previous respite, Grassroots Wellness Peer-Run Respite, was a similar state-funded facility that occupied the same house. It closed in early 2018 after its funding contract with DHS was not renewed, Welle said.

Finding a new method

The support the respite offers is what makes it unique, Laird said. “It seems like a radical idea, but it’s not. Everybody knows that’s really beneficial, because we all talk to our friends and family members when we’re stressed.”

Peer-to-peer support is also far cheaper than hospitalization, Laird said, and it may save states and communities money in the long run.

Monarch House doesn’t medically treat mental health crises or substance abuse emergencies, but it’s a good bridge to people who don’t need that intensive treatment, Welle said.

“Prior to these respites, there were really only two choices. You could stay home and deal with things that you’re going through on your own … or having to go to the hospital,” Laird said. “And for a lot of people, that’s really too intensive.”

Hospitals are vital, but are designed to stabilize a crisis instead of giving much one-on-one support, Laird said. In a hospital, those struggling with mental health may not be allowed to leave for one or two days. They may miss work or classes, a ripple effect that can cause lost wages.

At Monarch House, those same people have the freedom to come and go, work if they wish — and most importantly, talk to people who have experienced similar struggles, Welle said.

“This is a place where people can get a short respite and hopefully get some tools they can take back to their life and implement,” Welle said.

Welle compared Monarch House to “mutual aid.”

“In some circles it’s seen as a radical idea, but growing up in rural central Minnesota, that was very much a part of my life,” she said. “Coming from a farming family, it was just assumed you helped one another bring in the harvest. If someone was down on their luck, you held a fundraiser at a local church … with the understanding that it might be me next time.”

Laird believes the peer-to-peer, neighborly support way is well-suited to the area.

“At least that’s my experience of people I know in western Wisconsin,” Laird said. “They’re really salt-of-the-earth people, community-oriented, and like to work together to fix whatever’s going on.”

People can contact Monarch House or the warmline at 715-505-5641 or visit www.milkweedalliance.org/monarch-house for more information.

Chippewa Herald, Dunn County News
Jan. 6, 2019