Building a system is mental health focus

In 2017, 783 Minnesotans died by suicide. Reversing that trend is one of many goals for Minnesota mental health advocates this legislative session. But it will take building a mental health system that works for the state’s residents and addresses a wide array of mental health needs and issues.

“The mental health system isn’t broken,” said National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) Minnesota Executive Director Sue Abderholden. “It was never built.”

Busloads of mental health advocates from around the state flocked to the capitol March 14 for Mental Health Day on the Hill, filling a church for an information session and then packing the capitol rotunda to hear from legislators and leadership. One recurring theme was that mental illness doesn’t define people, but their strength and courage does. What struck many people at the capitol rally was the number of legislators who drew on their own family’s experiences with mental health issues.

One powerful message is that as mental health awareness and efforts to reduce the stigma of mental illness have gone on, issues are discussed more openly. Sen. Julie Rosen (R-Vernon Center) has been a state lawmaker since 2002. “And then you did not talk about mental health,” Rosen said. “But it was always there.” Speaking openly about mental health and mental health program needs is the way to get those needs taken care of.

Rosen and other lawmakers said they want to help. “Please do not give up on us because we haven’t given up on you,” she said.

One message from several advocates is that people who live with mental illness, or who care about someone with a mental illness, need state lawmakers and Gov. Tim Walz’s administration to address mental health needs in a multi-faceted way. Although many mental health-related bills are in the hopper this session, leaders emphasize that it is difficult to set priorities when there are so many pressing needs. That’s why so many different issues are being brought forward as a group.

Shannah Mulvihill, executive director of Mental Health Minnesota, said there are some encouraging signs this session, as bills have met a positive response. Still, leaders said that advocates need to continue to contact state lawmakers and share their stories.

Walz included suicide prevention as a focus in his budget proposal. House and Senate members have been receptive to many proposals brought forward. One concern Mulvihill raised is that with the closing of Canvas Heath’s Crisis Connection hotline last year, many Minnesotans in crisis have their calls directed to another state.

Another focus on the suicide prevention front is a to make sure that teachers get training on suicide prevention, so that they know what to do. Effective online training has been found but needs support. “We’re hearing that kids are really struggling,” Abderholden said.

Mental health legislation encompasses a very wide range of proposals, including children’s mental health and school services from early years through college. Independent and supportive housing, filling gaps in the mental health treatment system, culturally specific mental health programs, additional public defenders and staff, helping people find employment, and corrections-related programs are among the many issues on the table this session.

Jinny Palen, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Community Mental Health Programs (MACMHP), spoke for the need to improve access to needed mental health services. She was among speakers urging that past gains not be rolled back.

“This is about keeping mental health services intact,” she said. One focus this session is parity, of having mental health conditions covered equally in insurance plans. Too many services aren’t covered by commercial insurance providers, another focus for advocates this session.

Housing is another critical need, said Sam Smith of NAMI Minnesota. Too many of Minnesota’s homeless live with mental illness. “We’ve been talking about building a mental health system but if you don’t have a home it’s tough to get services,” Smith said. Advocates are calling for permanent supportive housing for people with mental illness, with what are described as wraparound or comprehensive services. Support for vouchers to help more people get into housing is also needed.

As of Access Press deadline, NAMI Minnesota was praising a bipartisan effort to improve Minnesota’s mental health system.

“We’ve gone from talking about the lack of access to actually doing something,” said Abderholden. “The investments being offered by the Senate and the House are a good starting point to continue to build our mental health system, but there is still much more that needs to be done between now and end of the legislative session.”

Senate File 1 makes an impactful, one-time investment of $25 million towards the mental health system. The bill includes NAMI priorities including new funding for school-linked mental health grants, expanding the loan forgiveness program for mental health professionals who work in Greater Minnesota, a pilot project to connect students at colleges and universities with mental health professionals on campus, grant funding for mental health professionals to provide mental health services to youth in homeless shelters, and funding to help mothers with postpartum depression along with veterans and farmers.

SF 1 also prioritizes the housing needs of people with mental illnesses through investments in permanent supportive housing, the Bridges housing voucher, and the Landlord Risk Mitigation Fund. Efforts are also made to divert people from the criminal justice system by increasing funding for mobile crisis services, establishing a competency restoration task force and funding of the Yellow Line project. Finally, funding is provided to increase our suicide prevention efforts.

The House omnibus Health and Human Services bill also makes significant investments in the mental health system and features NAMI priorities like expanding the number of Psychiatric Residential Treatment Facility (PRTF) beds for children with serious mental illnesses, funding to sustain and expand Minnesota’s Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics (CCHBCs), school-linked mental health grants, and to provide child care for mothers who struggle with their mental illnesses.

The bill also contains funding to support the transition to community effort to break the logjam at Anoka Regional Treatment Center, establishing a competency restoration task force. There is funding for homeless youth and to ensure children in foster care have access to needed services along with adding wait times to measure network adequacy. Finally, funding is provided to increase our suicide prevention efforts.

Both the House and Senate are advancing legislation to provide the tools the Departments of Health and Commerce need to enforce mental health parity. The Senate has sent its mental health parity bill to the Senate Floor and the House has included language in its omnibus Health and Human Services bill.

Information from NAMI Minnesota was used in this article.