‘Talking about it is opening doors’: Local providers discuss suicide prevention, mental health

With the recent death of a Brainerd student, mental health resources in Crow Wing County have stepped in to help their friends and neighbors through a difficult time.

Two people standing in front of a classroom.
Ray Stenglein, left, and Destiny Brown, suicide prevention instructors for Northern Pines Mental Health Center, teach safeTALK at the Bay Lake Retreat Center Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023.
Tim Speier / Brainerd Dispatch

BRAINERD — It can be a difficult topic, but advocates say talking about suicide and how to prevent it is critical to getting people the help they need.

With mental health awareness at the forefront of people's minds after the recent death of a Brainerd Public Schools student, Crow Wing County’s community organizations provide resources to residents as they work through a difficult time.

Crow Wing Energized recently hosted an event at the Bay Lake Retreat Center near Deerwood, presenting courses on suicide prevention. The 18 community members who completed the Jan. 18 course learned “ SafeTALK — Suicide Alertness for Everyone ” from Destiny Brown and Ray Stenglein, suicide prevention instructors for Northern Pines Mental Health Center in Brainerd.

Suicide prevention is a topic near and dear to Brown’s heart. As a suicide loss survivor, she works to help others who have also lost loved ones to suicide.

“March of this year, seven years ago, I lost a relative to suicide,” Brown said. “A few months later, lost a friend to suicide. The following summer, my daughter lost her best friend to suicide. A position became available within my organization. I applied for it not knowing if I could do it. … ended up being offered the position.”


SafeTALK is a four-hour training that prepares people, regardless of prior experience or training, to recognize if a person is at risk for suicide and become comfortable talking to them while connecting them to appropriate services.

Northern Pines Mental Health Center has worked with communities and individuals in Aitkin, Cass, Crow Wing, Todd, Morrison and Wadena counties on their mental health since 1964, said Laura Vaughn, executive director. Vaughn said the pandemic was a great equalizer in the way of mental health for the country as the conversation around and importance of maintaining one's mental health became the norm.

People listening to a class.
Listening to the SafeTALK presentation at the Bay Lake Retreat Center Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023, 18 community members learn about suicide prevention.
Tim Speier / Brainerd Dispatch

As the country began returning to a sense of normalcy, Vaughn said the number of mental health assessments for people between the ages of 5 to 17 increased at a higher rate than that of other age groups.

On Monday, Jan. 23, Forestview Middle School Principal Jon Anderson invited parents, guardians and community members to attend an event Wednesday evening hosted by Northern Pines and Mobile Crisis Outreach. The presentation came after the death of an eighth grade student was announced Jan. 16 and another student suffered a medical incident Jan. 20.

Vaughn described a mobile crisis outreach team as a group of professionals and practitioners who go to wherever the need is, wherever somebody might be struggling with their mental health and provide them with the help they need.

Some other services in Crow Wing County include a wide variety of mental health providers, therapy offices, social workers and a law enforcement liaison, just to name a few, said Nathan Bertram, the Crow Wing County adult services supervisor for mental health and substance use disorder programs.

Forestview Middle School exterior.
Forestview Middle School as seen Jan. 12, 2023, in Baxter.
Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

“At the county level, we're working with those who have some significant struggles,” Bertram said. “We're involved with roughly 1% of individuals, maybe 2% I think. Though, we're starting to branch out into some of these other areas with our law enforcement liaison and outreach positions.”

Brainerd Deputy Police Chief John Davis said over the years law enforcement officials have found themselves intervening more and more with individuals and families, dealing with issues that aren't always criminal in nature.


Due to law enforcement's job and limited resource availability, Davis said his officers respond and take steps to ensure everyone involved is safe and then make attempts to help with a solution. But often their solution is only a temporary fix and doesn't fully address the underlying issues at hand.

“Oftentimes, officers find themselves committed to these types of calls for hours at a time, which leaves them unavailable to respond to other calls for service,” Davis said. “Staffing a full-time social worker embedded within law enforcement agencies has allowed for co-response with law enforcement to incidents as a team.

“Not only are we able to immediately draw upon their vast resources and expertise, but in a lot of situations, our officers are able to excuse themselves from these incidents and redirect their efforts to other calls for service in the city while the social worker continues addressing the needs of the individual.”

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Eight months into a pilot project, the law enforcement liaison has enabled law enforcement to concentrate on the enforcement and allowed for social workers to meet quickly with individuals who may need other services to support them, Bertram said.

Working as a social worker embedded with law enforcement is Tera Kowalczyk, the Crow Wing County law enforcement liaison and community outreach social worker who responds to mental health-related or substance use-related calls. She sometimes responds as the call comes in and other times, she will follow up with an individual after receiving a call from law enforcement.

“It's very useful and very helpful to have (a law enforcement liaison) because I can see what's going on on the law enforcement side,” Kowalczyk said. “But I also have connections on the community services side with mental health providers and substance use disorder providers.”

During a Jan. 17 Crow Wing County committee of the whole meeting, Tami Lueck, Crow Wing County Community Services program manager, gave an update on the law enforcement liaison position to the county board.

Lueck said Crow Wing County’s law enforcement liaison responded to 131 calls in the third quarter of 2022.


Receiving positive feedback from law enforcement, Lueck said the one thing they have found difficult is only having one law enforcement liaison working with all the departments in the county.

After hearing how the county's law enforcement liaison works a five-day, 40-hour work week, Commissioner Steve Barrows asked Lueck how they are working through a problem that can present itself seven days a week. Lueck said with the law enforcement liaison position being grant funded, they are limited in what they can do but are working to implement the new position in the county to work as best it can with all the other county resources.

Woman sitting at a desk.
Tera Kowalczyk, the Crow Wing County law enforcement liaison and community outreach social worker, discusses her new role in the county Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023, at the Crow Wing County Sheriff's Office.
Tim Speier / Brainerd Dispatch

“Oftentimes law enforcement can leave the scene and I can work with that individual to develop a safety plan or next steps,” Kowalczyk said. “And I think that's really what our focus is on: reducing incarceration, reducing recidivism, reducing emergency department visits by putting that safety plan in place and working with that individual.”

Working with individuals and changing the narrative on mental health and suicide prevention has evolved over the years, Brown said, as people are more open to talking about their own mental well-being now.

“We as a society are becoming more aware of the language that is used when talking about mental health, mental illness and suicide,” Brown said. “We are also becoming more accepting when talking about mental health and suicide. There is still quite a bit of stigma around these topics, but I have found that talking about it is opening doors for others to feel comfortable in also talking about it.”

Mental health is parallel to that of primary care or physical health, Vaughn said.

“It takes ongoing care managing those symptoms every single day, and mental health is no different,” Vaughn said.

Mental health resources

TIM SPEIER, staff writer, can be reached on Twitter @timmy2thyme , call 218-855-5859 or email .

Tim Speier joined the Brainerd Dispatch in October 2021, covering Public Safety.
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