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More than 90 people, including five legislators, gathered in Alexandria on Friday, Oct. 11 to discuss mental health in the five-county region.

Future of regional mental health discussed with legislators

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ALEXANDRIA – More than ninety people gathered at the Broadway Ballroom Event Center in Alexandria on Friday, Oct. 11 to discuss the current and future condition of mental health services in Minnesota and in the five-county region. Included in the discussion were five Minnesota state legislators, who spent several hours discussing the issues with attendees and listening to the personal stories of individuals whose lives have been affected, in some way, by mental illness.

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The event, called the “Third Annual Day at Home in Region 4,” was sponsored by the Region 4 South Adult Mental Health Consortium (AMHC). The annual event is designed to bring legislators and their constituents together to engage in constructive dialogue on mental health issues, as well as put a personal face on mental illness in the region. The event also provides a forum to educate people involved with the mental health system on how to effectively interact with their legislators.

The Region 4 South AMHC is one of fifteen projects statewide that are involved in redesigning and implementing improved systems for delivering mental health services in local communities. The projects were established as the result of legislation passed in 1995 by the Minnesota Legislature, authorizing pilot projects that would result in systemic change in the delivery of mental health services for adults with serious and persistent mental illness.

Part of that systemic change involves ensuring that people experiencing symptoms of mental illness have access to services that will help reduce the effect of those symptoms in order to avoid crises. According to Jode Freyholtz-London, one of the day’s presenters, it also involves removing the stigma and shame associated with experiencing mental illness, especially in rural areas where the culture tends to look upon it as weakness.

Freyholtz took a few moments last Friday to share a story about her 84-year old father, who, a few years ago, began showing with signs of depression.

“He wasn’t sleeping, he lost weight, and the big cue that something was wrong,” Freyholtz said, “he wasn’t fishing.” Her father, with encouragement and support from his wife and daughter, eventually sought help, received treatment, and is doing well today. But it was her mother’s advice to her father as they left the doctor’s office that punctuated the moment for her.

“As we were leaving,” Freyholtz said, “my mom leans over to my dad and says, ‘You don’t have to tell the guys at the coffee shop that you’re taking something for depression.’”

Freyholtz, a 30 year veteran in the mental health field, gasped and suggested to her parents, “Guess how many of the guys at the coffee shop are already taking something for depression!”

“With a broken arm, there’s no way to get around people seeing the cast,” said Sen. Torrey Westrom, who attended the event as a guest. “But with mental illness, it’s not so obvious.”

For Westrom, one of the keys to improving treatment for people is by shifting mental health into an equal place of priority with physical health. As he talked with those at his table, Westrom made note of one story in particular that someone shared with him involving a person who had been in crisis and contemplating suicide. The individual was forced to wait in a hospital waiting room for ten hours before getting help.

“When someone is having a heart attack, they may be airlifted within a couple of hours to a facility where they can get proper treatment,” Westrom said. “For someone who is considering suicide, they may have to sit eight to ten hours just to get help.”

Westrom noted that the same person forced to wait so long to get help this time, may have a crisis again in a few years. But, Westrom said, if they feel they will not get help, they may not seek help.

Prioritizing mental health within the healthcare system was emphasized by Dave Hartford, assistant commissioner for the Chemical and Mental Health Services Administration of the Minnesota Department of Human Services, who also spoke at the event. Hartford stressed the need for people to understand that “mental illness is healthcare.” Mental health, Hartford said, is an integrated part of every person’s overall health, just as much as their physical condition.

In his presentation, Hartford pointed out that as recently as the 1950’s, Minnesota housed 11,000 people in institutions. In those early years, the “asylum model of care” was the norm and “people spent their lives in institutions,” he said. “It was just a few years ago that Governor Pawlenty put forward a formal apology for the way people had been treated with mental illness in the state of Minnesota.”

According to Hartford, a key goal in the next phase of improving mental health services will be to shift the system away from “an acute care model to a public health model.” The difference between the two is that with an acute care model, people’s symptoms are not treated until they become so severe that hospitalization is required. Conversely, the public health model embraces prevention and support in the community to help people get the service they need to reduce the need for hospitalization.

“These are people’s kids. They are people’s parents, and they deserve better,” said Rep. Mary Franson who spent the morning talking with other attendees and listening to speakers at the event. Franson expressed particular concern for those working in the mental health field.

“With gas prices and food prices going up, it’s really inappropriate that they have only received a one percent raise in recent years,” said Franson.

“One of the workers I spoke with inspired me because she loves her job, so she stays there though her pay is not great,” Franson said. “My concern is – what happens to the people receiving mental health services when the workers leave because they can no longer afford to stay in their job?”

Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen and Rep. Paul Anderson were on-hand at the close of the day to listen to people’s individual stories about mental illness and engage in a dialogue session. 

“It’s important,” said Anderson, “when legislators can interact and learn first-hand how their legislation affects people personally. A lot boils down to funding to get people the care they need quicker. It costs up front, but saves money down the road.”

For more information about mental health issues in this region or to see video from the event, visit www.r4sconversations.org orwww.reallifeconversations.com

Philip Drown is a writer and consultant in the Morris area. 

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