Area providers and consumers of the mental health care system gathered Friday to share both triumphs and concerns with state legislators.
The event was intended to be a localized version of Mental Health Day at the state Capitol and was hosted by the National Alliance for Mental Illness North Central Region, the Region Five-Plus Adult Mental Health Initiative and the Crow Wing County Mental Health Task Force.
Two state senators attended Mental Health Day at Home: Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, and Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point. Also in attendance was Rep. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa. The legislators participated in small group discussion, which was focused on identifying those areas of mental health care working well in the region and areas in need of improvement.
"There got to be this informal conversation with legislators in a setting that felt comfortable for people to share their experiences, as well as talk about what they think are some of the issues," said Tami Lueck, Crow Wing County Community Services adult services supervisor. "But also, there were some discussions about ways to solve things, which I think was good. We probably got more time with our local legislators than we probably would have if we went down to the Capitol."
Four people shared their own experiences with the mental health care system from the perspective of receiving services. Those stories covered both positive and negative experiences.
Katey Hanson told the group about her hospitalization as a teenager and the differences she encountered in treatment from one place to another. She was incorrectly diagnosed with childhood bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and it wasn't until her mother suggested anxiety might be the root issue that she was able to begin recovering.
"Being in recovery doesn't mean that you're always OK," Hanson said. "It's about learning the skills to reach out to someone when you're having a hard time."
Hanson said once she received specific support in school for her mental health concerns, "it actually probably saved my life."
"I didn't have friends before I was in that group," Hanson said. "I have friends now who went through the program with me."
Kerry Townsend said before he was diagnosed with depression, he thought of providing mental health care as "just a way for people to make money." But after two years of seeing a therapist, he said he learned a lot about himself and others-and now he applies what he learned to his role as a certified peer specialist with Northern Pines Mental Health Center. The peer specialist program pairs those who've experienced issues, including mental illness and addiction with those in need of support.
Ashley Nelson is a recovering heroin addict with co-occurring mental health diagnoses, and is also working as a peer specialist. Nelson said at first she tried ignoring her problems and then began to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol.
"I got accepted into the drug court program, and it saved my life," Nelson said. "I was able to go to treatments and learn from counselors about drug addiction and mental health."
The Crow Wing County drug and DWI courts offer intensive supervision for offenders with substance abuse challenges. Nelson now mentors 17 peers facing a variety of issues.
"It's so cool to see from the bottom and work your way up and see people grow," she said.
Kim Bollig with Wellness in the Woods shared her perspective as the loved one of someone suffering with mental illness. Bollig described the struggles of her late husband, a Vietnam veteran who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder most of his life.
"I learned very fast what he was going through and how not to trigger him, but more importantly, I learned how to help him through it," Bollig said.
It took 24 years, but her husband began receiving treatment and she said she was able to witness his transformation.
"Over the years, I watched him heal somewhat, and I'd like to think that I had a major part in that," she said.
The stories shared represent the human side of the mental health system, but the discussion took a broader view to discuss systemic successes and problems.
The Brainerd lakes area is strong in its capacity for advocacy and collaboration among stakeholders, participants offered. Highlights mentioned included the peer support program and the drug and DWI courts.
The focus of the group continuously shifted toward shortfalls within the system, however. Central Minnesota is not immune to problems experienced statewide within mental health care, including issues related to hospitalizations. Patients are often placed far away from their families and support systems, and before placement, they often must wait weeks or months within hospital emergency departments.
A lack of housing for those experiencing homelessness or those in need of step-down care from psychiatric hospitalization represented a gap in the system, many concurred.
An area of particular concern was access to mental health care in all of its forms by those residing in rural communities along with access for children in all areas. Developing transportation and improving access to the internet could alleviate some of this problem, participants noted, although most everything on the wish list requires funding.
"Being at a forum like this and to actually sit at the table with people and talk about real issues and real people, that matters," Gazelka said. "Most legislators, both sides of the aisle, are trying to find solutions. We have a certain number of dollars and different things that we have to accomplish."
Heintzeman noted his own family was touched by mental health issues, as his grandmother is dying of Alzheimer's disease.
"Mental health is a huge issue, and it's something that we're aware of at a lot of different levels," Heintzeman said. "We don't know everything, and we're very grateful for folks that are taking the time to advocate on this issue and to work with legislators."
Ruud told the group her sister suffered from bipolar disorder, something she typically did not share with people.
"She struggled her whole life," Ruud said. "There wasn't a whole lot of help for her. ... I know that a lot of folks struggle. It's really difficult, so I applaud you for trying to find solutions for that, and to make better lives for people with mental illness."
Ruud said she wanted to speak with those in the business community about hiring practices for those with mental health issues.
Lueck said many of the issues discussed at the event could be addressed by local mental health initiatives, but some would require legislative action.
"Some of it is bigger than what we can do," she said.
Ultimately, Lueck said, it would take compassion and support from the community to uplift those suffering-things money cannot buy.