LA CROSSE, Wis. — It’s not always easy for people who are struggling to find the help they need in the mental health system, said Scott Mihalovic, board president of the La Crosse Lighthouse.

People who are in crisis may be turned away from the hospital if they don’t meet specific requirements, he said. For those facing drug addiction, there’s no detox facility nearby in La Crosse.

“The gap is such that there are people who can't get in the system and can't get the help they need when they first ask, and they say they're ready,” Mihalovic said. “There's no place for them to go.”

The La Crosse Lighthouse is looking to fill that gap. The group recently received Department of Health Services funding to open a peer-run respite, where guests struggling with mental health or substance use challenges can check themselves in for a free, short-term stay.

When the Lighthouse opens later this year — Mihalovic said late September or early October is the goal — it’ll join a growing list of respites in Wisconsin using the peer-run model. These locations bring on staff who have their own experiences with mental health or addiction, and offer a non-medical alternative to hospitalization or rehab. 

For La Crosse, it’s been a project years in the making — and when Mihalovic heard that the Lighthouse would get its funding, he couldn’t wait to share the news.

“I can't say it was as exciting as the day I was married, or the day I had two children,” Mihalovic said. “But it comes a close second.”

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The Lighthouse team grew out of an earlier La Crosse task force focused on heroin treatment and intervention, Mihalovic said. Community members banded around the goal to create a home and offer “short-term support to people who are willing to volunteer to be helped.”

For years, the team has been communicating with the other peer-run respites across the state, learning from their examples to develop the plans for the Lighthouse, Mihalovic said.

The work of getting the respite off the ground now comes down to two key pieces: Finding the perfect location and hiring the right staff, said Karen Kuhlmann, the new executive director of the Lighthouse.

They’re looking for a three- to five-bedroom home that meets their vision of a “peaceful and tranquil” environment, Kuhlmann said. 

Mihalovic anticipated that zoning might be a challenge, because the respite will likely be located in a residential neighborhood — but hopes that educating neighbors about the Lighthouse’s mission can bring them onboard.

As for staff, Kuhlmann said it’ll be important to find the right peer supporters who can guide guests through the challenges of starting recovery, which is “probably one of the hardest things a person will ever have to do in their lives.”

Of course, bringing on staff with some sort of lived experience is the key to the peer-run respite model, Lighthouse leaders said. 

“Somebody who has lived experience is like that beacon of hope for the person who is moving toward recovery,” Kuhlmann said. “They can see in person that recovery is possible.”

Mihalovic himself said he got involved in this work because he has a daughter who is in her long-term recovery — “because nobody ever gave up on her, and she had a chance.”

He’s hoping the Lighthouse will offer another chance to others who are struggling. 

“There's still a huge stigma placed on people with mental health disorders, and addiction to drugs in particular,” he said. “So these people are not only facing their own challenges and their own addictions, but they're facing the stigma of society and that they're bad people.”

If they don’t have anywhere to turn, those facing addiction “stay in those bad places,” he said. But a safe environment, like the Lighthouse, can hopefully break the cycle and get people back on their feet, he said.  

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When Lighthouse opens later this year, it’ll become the sixth peer-run respite funded by the DHS. 

There are four others across the state open to all Wisconsin residents — located in Appleton, Milwaukee, Madison and Menomonie — plus one in Pewaukee that specifically serves veterans.

All in all, the state-funded respites have served more than 2,000 people in the six years since the program kicked off, according to the DHS. And they’ve supported thousands more over the phone: Just last year, respites answered over 12,000 calls, the DHS reports.

But peer-run leaders say there’s still a lot of room to grow.

Paula Verrett, the director of Iris Place in Appleton, said she’d love to see a respite in every county so that people don’t have to travel to find support. These days, some guests drive hours from other parts of the state to stay at Iris Place, she said.

Any new respites wouldn’t be going it alone, either: Peer-run leaders say they find ways to support each other across the state, like holding regular meetings to talk through new ideas and holding self-care sessions for peer supporters. Mihalovic said learning from other groups’ successes and challenges helped the Lighthouse team start off in a better place with their own planning. 

It’s already been a “dream come true” for her to see more respites pop up, Verrett said — and she thinks the model, which is meeting people’s needs while saving money from hospital costs, will only continue to grow.

Even beyond Wisconsin, peer-run respites have taken root across the U.S., pointed out Brian Miller, a peer companion at Iris Place. For him, being part of a growing movement brings extra meaning to his work.

“There's a real sense of pride — of being in on the ground floor of what really is looking like the wave of the future of how mental health is handled,” Miller said.