COPE Services – 40 Years Old and Growing Strong

Imagine being in a dark room, no windows or light, you are completely alone and the space feels suffocating. You feel intense pain, but in no discernable part of your body. Your mind rages, mostly against yourself. You feel unwanted by those you love most dearly. Perhaps they would be better off without you. Work seems unbearable. Everyone is irritating. Even the smallest task is too much. You’d like to get out into the light, but for some unknown reason you are too broken, too tired, too hopeless.

For people with a serious mental illness, such as bipolar disorder or treatment-resistant depression, that is often how the world looks and feels during an episode. This description may sound familiar to individuals who experience mental illness or to their loved ones who desperately want to help them lead joy-filled, satisfying, rich lives. It is less familiar to society at large, to friends and family or work colleagues who may have caught a glimpse of this behavior but know little about the circumstances or underlying illnesses that may have led to it.

This gap in awareness or understanding, and the shame, distress, pain, anxiety and isolation so many affected by mental illness experience is why COPE Services exists.

COPE Origins

COPE was founded in 1978 as the Concerned Ozaukee Parents Exchange. A caring group of women from the Junior Women’s Club of Mequon-Thiensville started this supportive calling network to offer a compassionate ear and guidance to other local parents experiencing mental health issues in their families.

“We owe a debt of gratitude to those early volunteers and workers who developed COPE, brought support and empathetic listening to the callers and laid the groundwork for where COPE is today,” exclaims Cecile Duhnke, executive director for COPE Services.

In the first few years, COPE volunteers took calls from their own homes. There were 78 calls the founding year. By 1981, COPE was named Ozaukee County’s official Hotline, providing 24-hour access and crisis intervention for Ozaukee County residents while continuing to serve as an emotional support line for all Southeastern Wisconsin.

During the 1980s and ‘90s, COPE added outreach activities to educate people about mental health issues and how to recognize them; where to seek quality mental health services and treatment; and how to access nonprofit support services to aid in recovery and rehabilitation of community members. COPE’s relationships with human services providers in Ozaukee County; emergency, police and fire departments; local health care systems; public schools; faith-based organizations; and bedrock charities also grew.

Growing Need

In recent years, COPE Services and other providers have seen a dramatic rise in mental health issues impacting teen and youth populations. About 20 percent of youth between 13 and 18 live with a mental health condition, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). To meet this need, COPE developed a school-based outreach program focused exclusively on Ozaukee County. It is designed to raise awareness about mental illness and lower the stigma so that it’s easier for young people who are struggling to reach out for help. In addition to teaching healthy coping skills for stress and anxiety, the outreach program also addresses common mental health challenges and puts audiences in the minds of young people experiencing mental illness.

In December 1999, the COPE Administrative Office moved to its current home and joined with six other non-profit agencies in the Family Enrichment Center in Grafton. The listening center is located at an undisclosed location.

Mental Illness a Healthcare Priority

In 2016-17, a Mental Health Systems & Gap Analysis was conducted for Ozaukee and Washington Counties to facilitate discussion and a better understanding of current service delivery conditions; gaps in and barriers to service provision; and resources needed to improve mental health in these communities. Interviews were conducted with experts across the public and private sectors involved in or connected to local mental health care. Among the findings:

  • Wait times to see therapists are often four to six weeks due to a shortage of providers and the financial costs of accessing mental health care.
  • Because it can be hard to access services for any number of reasons, people may wait too long and end up accessing care only in a time of crisis.
  • One healthcare provider’s Emergency Department sees about 15 cases of mental health distress per week, including suicidal ideation and overdoses.

These and similar circumstances at health care systems, county service centers and other local agencies help explain why the COPE Hotline received more than 24,000 calls last year and 28,000 in 2016. In fact, 76 percent of the people who use the COPE Hotline are repeat callers. Most callers (66 percent) report income levels below poverty level.

The reasons for their calls are as varied and complex as our mental health system: one caller is trying to endure a horrific trauma; another is fighting a fatal addiction; an elderly caller just experienced the devastating loss of her husband; someone a caller cares for is in danger from opioid addiction.

With professional treatment and counseling resources sometimes overwhelmed, the COPE Hotline has remained a constant lifeline and always-on resource to callers seeking to talk with someone who understands their grief, the emotional pain they are in, or even the joy they experience when overcoming an obstacle or challenge.

As long as mental health issues impact the lives of people living in Ozaukee County and neighboring communities, COPE will continue to explore meaningful ways to expand its emotional support, outreach and education activities.

COPE’s Challenges Ahead

Funding. As we look forward, COPE is strong, but we also face challenges. In 2018, our funding was cut by about $60,000, so one of the biggest focuses of the year is to expand our sources of funding. One example is a new program, Call to Connect, an outgoing emotional support effort for seniors who may not have family or friends close by leaving them isolated.

Programming. We know there are many people here in our county that need help but won’t call a hotline. If they won’t call a hotline, then we need to offer them another way to ask for help.

So, we will continue to research and develop programming that supports them. That’s why this year we are strengthening our ties to the faith community and our schools. We know this is one of the most effective ways to reach young people.

The COPE executive team and staff, our board, volunteers and other advocates look forward to a day very soon when we can talk easily about mental health without the shame and stigma associated with it; when mental health is fully integrated into healthcare and it is embraced in the same way as other diseases, like cancer or diabetes; and when we can better reach the teens, veterans and elderly in our community who are struggling.

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