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Sanford Health and Beltrami County partner to serve the area's unmet mental health needs

In mid-October, ground was broken on Sanford's new $6.2 million Behavioral Health Crisis Center. Once completed, the 12,000 square-foot facility will be the first center to offer adult inpatient hospital psychiatric beds within 90 miles of Bemidji.

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Community members broke ground on Sanford’s new Behavioral Health Crisis Center on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. The center is set to open in fall 2022 at 3220 Hannah Avenue Northwest. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)
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BEMIDJI, Minn. -- Efforts to increase the mental health care infrastructure in the Bemidji, Minnesota, area took another step forward this month.

On Oct. 13, about 85 community members gathered to break ground on Sanford Health's new $6.2 million Behavioral Health Crisis Center. Once completed, the 12,000-square-foot facility will be the first center to offer adult inpatient hospital psychiatric beds within 90 miles of Bemidji.

The center will be the first to feature an Emergency Psychiatric Assessment Treatment and Healing, or EmPATH, unit for adults, children and adolescents. With the EmPATH unit, the center will be able to provide adults and adolescents outpatient crisis care.

It will also offer continued assessment, individualized treatment planning, access to multi-disciplinary teams, immediate psychiatric services, collaboration with primary care physicians and access to medical interventions. In total, the facility will have eight inpatient beds.

The groundbreaking for the new facility took place after a year of increased residents needing mental health treatment. In 2020, mental health screenings at Sanford Health of Northern Minnesota were up 600% to 700% over 2019.

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"After this past year and a half, I think all of us understand having support close to home, especially in times of crisis," Susan Jarvis, Sanford Health of Northern Minnesota president and CEO, said at the head of the ceremony. "For patients experiencing a behavioral health crisis close to home, this could not only save their life, but for many, it's a step toward improving their quality of life, by getting them immediate access to the help they need."

To make the project a reality, Sanford partnered with Beltrami County. The local government was instrumental in funding the facility, as it assisted in successfully applying for a $3.65 million grant from the Minnesota Department of Health's Crisis Bond Project.

Additionally, through the county, the project received $1.45 million in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act. The remainder of the project is being funded by the Sanford Health Foundation of Northern Minnesota.

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Susan Jarvis, president of Sanford Health of Northern Minnesota, gives a project overview ahead of a groundbreaking ceremony on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021, for Sanford’s new Behavioral Health Crisis Center. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

Behavioral health needs

Health officials noted the mental health treatment needs, citing how Sanford's Bemidji Medical Center sees an average of six mental health patients per day. Sanford's Bemidji Mobile Crisis Unit also saw a 23% increase in encounters during 2019-20 and an additional 44% increase from 2020-2021.

Sanford Health also had a total of 406 patients in crisis requiring inpatient psychiatric care in 2020, and the closest facility with that treatment capacity is 90 miles away.

"The escalating behavioral health and mental health challenges in our community have taken their toll on infrastructure not intended to address those needs," Beltrami County Administrator Tom Barry said. "Our hospital is not designed or staffed to serve the growing population of patients in a mental health crisis. Our county jail, often the place of last resort for those in crisis, was also not designed, staffed or capable to serve patients."

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Those experiencing a mental health emergency and ending up at the jail are what pushed former Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp to advocate at the Minnesota Legislature for more behavioral health facilities. Hodapp said the issues originated from the state closing its mental health hospitals.

"The idea was that they were going to create smaller, community mental health care facilities, which is a good idea," Hodapp said. "The problem is, that never happened. So the problem was people in mental health crises wound up getting arrested.

"Because of that, we just kept saying we need to have community resources so they don't wind up in custody and places they won't get the care they need. So we continued working with the Legislature for many years to provide money to our area and the rest of the state," Hodapp added.

The issue wasn't unique to Beltrami County, either. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, there are about 2 million times each year where people with serious mental illnesses are booked into jail. Additionally, NAMI states that about two in five people who are incarcerated have a mental illness.

'A gap in crisis services'

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Attendees clap during a groundbreaking ceremony on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021, for Sanford’s new Behavioral Health Crisis Center. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

Jay Coughenour, regional administrator of Sanford Behavioral Health, said the new facility represents an important continuum of care for the area.

"We already have a vast array of community-based mental health services, but as a result of our local needs assessment, a gap in crisis services was identified," Coughenour said. "We recognize the needs of our population are vast, and to be able to meet people where they are, you have to have significant bandwidth. So the more services we have the better we are at meeting people and their needs."

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National statistics back up how not enough people get the treatment they need. In a report from NAMI, less than half of American adults with mental illnesses, 45%, get mental health treatment in a given year. For those living with serious mental illnesses, 66% get treatment in a given year.

To ensure residents have the access to care they may need, several of those involved with the new center said collaboration will continue to be highly important.

"I don't think we can overemphasize the partnerships we've had for this process," Coughenour said. "It really took the whole community to get these programs here."

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Ron Kingbird, right, a behavioral health and traditional spiritual practitioner from the Red Lake Nation, and Joe Beaudreau, Native American advocate at Sanford Health, conclude a spiritual blessing during a groundbreaking ceremony on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021, for Sanford’s new Behavioral Health Crisis Center. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

Matthew Liedke is a reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer. He is originally from International Falls and now resides in Bemidji. He's a 2009 graduate of Rainy River Community College and a 2012 graduate of Minnesota State University Moorhead. At the Pioneer, he covers government, politics, health and economic development. He can be reached at (218) 333-9791 or by email at mliedke@bemidjipioneer.com.
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