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Mental health the focus of dialogue with legislators, candidates

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ALEXANDRIA - More than ninety people gathered at the Broadway Ballroom Event Center in Alexandria last Friday, Oct. 12 to discuss the current and future condition of mental health services in Minnesota and in the five-county region. Included in the discussion was a panel of eleven regional Minnesota State legislators and legislative candidates. The panel 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 "Second 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 the 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.

"Prevention services save money and they save lives," said Ed Eide, Executive Director of the Mental Health Association of Minnesota, who spoke at the event. Eide shared recent statistics from a nearby county which indicated that out of the 75 situations where hospitalization for mental illness was a possibility, 48 were diverted by the local crisis stabilization services. "That means forty-eight people were not hospitalized because they were able to get services in their home [communities]," said Eide.

The theme of lives changed because of help given echoed throughout much of the day as people shared their personal stories. Several individuals described being deeply impacted by a mental health worker whose input and advice helped them manage their illness, and at times, may have even saved their life.

Shelia, a thirty-five year old woman from Douglas County, explained that her entire family, including parents and siblings, "has suffered from mental illness". Sheila expressed how having mental health workers in her life has profoundly affected her present and her future.

"They help me a lot," Sheila said. "They inspire me and give me good advice. I see my future as very happy and hopeful because with all these people helping me out, it gives me hope to keep going."

Edith, a Pope County resident, described her journey with depression since the age of five. She said her experience with mental illness, along with the help of friends and mental health workers, has made her "a survivor". Edith described how joining a committee of the "Region 4 South Conversations" group that explores the relationship between mental health and physical health, caused her to transform her personal health habits.

"I have become healthier mentally and physically," said Edith. "I owe it all to the support of my friends at Conversations and Community Partners [Drop-In Center]. And I know how important it is for us to speak out to all of you because we depend on and need your help to get us through each day."

Dennis Lindor, head of Prairie Community Services, a mental health service provider based in Morris, thanked the many individuals who shared their stories and commended them for their courage. Lindor noted how many of the individuals' stories included gratefulness to staff who "helped them every day to get through their illness," and asked the legislators to remember the importance of cost of living increases (COLAs) for these workers.

"It's probably been four or five years since there has been any increase there," said Lindor. "Dollars are always short and we know that. But, if there's any way to swing that, I think it would be a real benefit to the programs and to the people who need the service."

The panel of legislators universally agreed with the need to maintain mental health services in order to ensure that those who need help will continue to have access.

"Sometimes you have to spend a little money to save a lot of money," said Bob Cuniff, Democratic candidate for Minnesota State House District 8B and member of the panel. "Sometimes preventative, getting to the symptoms right away, is the key so we don't have to be spending a lot of money, and we don't have to be filling up our jails or hospitals."

"The funding mechanisms have to continue," said Republican Senator Bill Ingebrigtsen. "We have to continue to take care of those people who need taking care of."

"The theme that I came away with here today is 'Maintain our hope'", said Republican Representative Mary Franson. "And that is exactly what we need to do. We need to maintain your hope and keep your networks alive."

Morris resident and longtime mental health advocate Liz Hinds addressed the panel with a few closing comments. Hinds was also one of the thirteen people who shared their personal stories of mental illness with the legislators.

"As much as we want your support when you get down to the Legislature, we really appreciate your investment of time to listen to us today," said Hinds. "The respect you have shown and the investment of your time, and we know how precious that is in campaign season, means a lot to us."

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