Champions for mental health honored by NAMI Minnesota

People and organizations were honored in November by the NAMI Minnesota (National Alliance on Mental Illness). The 2019 awards were […]

People and organizations were honored in November by the NAMI Minnesota (National Alliance on Mental Illness). The 2019 awards were presented to citizen volunteers, a collaborative, an employer, state lawmakers and professionals, during NAMI Minnesota’s annual conference in St. Paul. NAMI Minnesota is a non-profit organization that works to improve the lives of children and adults with mental illnesses and their families through its programs of education, support and advocacy.

NAMI Minnesota Executive Director Sue Abderholden explained each award and what each winner has done.

The Volunteer of the Year Award was given to Plymouth resident Bob Swanson, in recognition of his giving generously of his time, resources and energy.

 “When his son, Michael who lived with bipolar disorder, died by suicide in 2009 Bob Swanson looked for a way to channel his grief.  He first began sharing his family’s story at our one-hour workshop Get To Know NAMI. It was a way to talk about the impact of a NAMI class he had attended and to let people know that they are not alone on this journey. He wanted to reduce the fear and shame and encourage understanding and empathy,” said Abderholden.

In 2016 Swanson was trained to deliver QPR – Question, Persuade, Refer, the three actions that can be taken to prevent suicide, He has since volunteered countless hours and reached hundreds of people in churches, communities and the construction trades. He especially reached out to men – who may be more reluctant to talk about it and to know how to help. He once presented to more 200 carpenters.

Volunteers Sue Lundholm and Bob Swanson

Special Events Volunteer of the Year is Sue Lundholm of Minneapolis, for her work on the annual NAMIWalk.

“Sue is what we would call a ‘whirlwind’ – she moves at breakneck, dizzying speeds to get things done. Over the years she has collected amazing gifts for the silent auction and single handedly obtains donations of food for some of the people who attend the NAMIWalk but don’t have the resources to buy a meal that day.  She has offered up her culinary skills as a major auction item as well,” said Abderholden.

“Sue is one of those people who work hard behind the scenes and never ask or want recognition. She does what she does because she is so committed to NAMI’s mission and to improving the lives of people with mental illnesses. We are so pleased that we have Sue on our side – she is always cheerful and energetic, and we could not do our work without her support.”

Professional of the Year is Nita Kumar, Ph.D., a mental health consultant for the Anoka Hennepin School District. The award goes to a professional who provides high quality services, exemplifies best practices, and demonstrates commitment and leadership to the field. She has worked for the school district for seven years.

Nita Kumar, Ph.D.

Kumar came to the district after reports of bullying and suicides with the directive to create, implement and direct its mental health programs. By working with the school board and district administration and by extensive collaboration with the community, she helped build an impressive program with full-time embedded mental health professionals in all 40 schools, early childhood therapy services, mental health screening, capacity building with staff in the district and more. 

 “The mental health needs of the students are front and center for Dr. Kumar and she has done an excellent job in creating avenues for students to get help,” said Abderholden. “She has gone beyond her district by advocating for more funding for school linked mental health programs, school support personnel and a broader array of children’s mental health services.”

The Media Award went to Andy Steiner, mental health and addiction reporter for the online news site MinnPost, for her reporting on the needs of people with mental illnesses or effectively portraying the stories of people with mental illnesses and their families. 

Andy Steiner

Steiner previously worked as editor of Minnesota Women’s Press and Utne Reader. She has published several books including How to Survive: The Extraordinary Resilience of Ordinary People.  Steiner looks beyond the typical stories and helps readers understand how mental illnesses affect specific cultural communities and delves into some of the proposed solutions as to how to continue to build the mental health system. Every story is well researched, thoughtful and made real by sharing the stories of people who are impacted. 

 “At MinnPost she has covered nearly every possible mental health topic – from early childhood mental health to mental health services to female veterans to the suicide risk among veterinarians,” said Abderholden. “Thanks to Andy’s work readers have a better understanding of the needs of our community and are more connected to the need to create change.”

The Provider of the Year award winner is Minneapolis-based Touchstone Mental Health, for providing mental health services that demonstrate excellence, respect and best practices. Touchstone Mental Health was founded in 1982 by five social workers interested in developing residential services for older adults living with serious mental illness.


Over the last three decades Touchstone has expanded to offer many programs including residential treatment, supportive housing, intentional communities, case management, assisted living, care coordination and homeless transition services.

 “What makes Touchstone stand apart is their commitment to treating the whole person by integrating physical and mental health with health and wellness practices. They offer fitness education for people with mental illnesses along with expressive therapies such as art, movement, music and nature based therapy,” said Abderholden. “If you have been to Rising Cedars (assisted living apartments in Minneapolis and New Hope) you can see firsthand how they used research to create a beautiful space that promotes healing. And Touchstone’s leadership and staff are active members of the Mental Health Legislative Network, working to improve the lives not only of the people who use their programs but for people with mental illnesses across the state.”

Touchstone also has residential treatment programs in Minneapolis, Bloomington and Fridley.

The Criminal Justice Award was presented to the St. Cloud Collaborative of Central Minnesota Mental Health Center, CentraCare Health, Stearns County Health and Human Services, and the St. Cloud Police Department. The collaborative is honored for its criminal justice work, which has demonstrated through its action a strong commitment to the decriminalization of mental illnesses.

St. Cloud Collaborative

 Abderholden described how the partners saw the need for new and creative approaches to their work. “The jail, detox and emergency room were dealing with a handful of people over and over again. When the agencies came together to talk about their problems, they learned that there were seeing the very same people. A small number of people who were struggling with their mental illnesses or substance use disorders were actually high utilizers of services but not in an effective way,” she said. “These organizations decided that they could do better. Their action team identifies people who are touching multiple systems, helps them obtain insurance, clinical care, housing and whatever else people need. Outreach workers connect with these individuals and simply don’t give up on them. CentraCare provides mental health care in the jails.”
The partners are beginning to see results with lower numbers in the jail, detox and emergency room. Most importantly, more than 50 people have found housing and recovery.

Employer of the Year is Best Buy. NAMI Minnesota honors employers for demonstrated support for hiring and retaining people with mental illnesses; extraordinary measures to educate its employees about mental illnesses; and creation of a supportive workplace for families who have a loved one with a mental illness.

Best Buy

“Nearly three years ago Best Buy contacted NAMI Minnesota wanting to talk about mental health in the workplace. They took that small discussion and launched an internal campaign to raise awareness about mental health and mental illnesses,” Abderholden said. “People shared their stories of living with depression or anxiety. Education was available to learn about mental illnesses and resources. Managers were trained to identify emerging symptoms or warning signs in employees. Workplace accommodations were made available, including allowing people the time they needed for their recovery. They began offering Life Solutions, a free 24/7 hot- line that covers the entire household and any concern.”

“But they didn’t stop there. They also became an active member of the Mental Health Learning Collaborative organized by the Minnesota Health Action Group to create a checklist and path for self-insured employers to ensure compliance with mental health parity and to build a culture of overall wellbeing. They understood that simply raising awareness was not enough – you needed to make sure that employees could access appropriate and effective treatment.”

Two legislators were also feted for their work, Rep. Nick Zerwas (R-Elk River) and Sen. David Senjem (R-Rocher). The Legislator of the Year Award at its annual conference is given to a lawmaker who has been an outspoken advocate for children and adults with mental illness and their families.

 “When the Star Tribune published a series on the use of solitary confinement in our prisons in December of 2016, reporting that over 17,500 prisoners had been placed in solitary, a fair number of whom lived with a mental illness, Rep. Zerwas was livid. He didn’t believe it was right for people with a mental illness to be locked alone in a small room for months at a time in conditions that would only make them worse off,” said Abderholden.

Rep. Nick Zerwas

 “Starting in the 2017 legislative session Rep. Zerwas has been the strongest advocate for legislation to restrict the use of solitary, require basic conditions, monitor people’s mental health, and provide yearly data to the legislature. He authored bills that came close to passing in 2017 and 2018, but this year it finally happened. This is a monumental change that couldn’t have happened without his leadership and advocacy.  There are other issues that he has worked on that have helped the mental health community, but his work on this issue has been nothing short of amazing.” Zerwas recently stepped down due to health and family reasons.

Sen. David Senjem

“Senator Senjem successfully spearheaded legislation to create more supportive housing and crisis homes. Last session he carried NAMI’s bill to create a competency restoration task force to look into why more people with mental illnesses are deemed incompetent to stand trial and to create solutions,” said Abderholden. “He has supported addressing workforce shortages, the mental health of youth in shelters, school-linked mental health and crisis teams. His commitment to building our mental health system is unwavering.”

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