Disability issues come into focus at rallies 

Making disability community voices heard at the Minnesota capitol continues to be a virtual process. Two of the regular session’s […]

MN State Capitol building

Making disability community voices heard at the Minnesota capitol continues to be a virtual process. Two of the regular session’s largest rallies, Disability Day at the Capitol and Mental Health Day on the Hill, are in the books for 2022.  

Both groups emphasized the need to draw on the state budget surplus and to have projects included in the 2022 bonding bill. At both gatherings needs were voiced for supportive and accessible housing of all types. 

Continuing to build the state’s mental health system was a key theme for the February 24 Mental Health Day on the Hill. More than 500 people statewide heard an update on legislation and words of encouragement from Gov. Tim Walz and lawmakers. 

Shannah Mulvihill, executive director of Mental Health Minnesota and cochair of the Mental Health Legislative Network, said the challenges are significant, but not insurmountable. “We know what works, and we need to continue making progress in building our mental health system,” she said. 

Community leaders, state lawmakers and Walz said they are well aware of the mental health challenges created or amplified by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. “We know this pandemic is taking a toll on Minnesota’s mental health across the state … Mental health is a critical piece of public health, and our state is committed to providing mental health resources to all Minnesotans, because no one is alone in this battle,” Walz said. 

However, the state’s severe workforce shortage is affecting Minnesotans’ mental health care at all ages and types of conditions. As needs have risen, capacity has fallen. 

Access to mental health treatment is one focus area. Sue Abderholden, executive director of NAMI Minnesota, outlined the staffing crisis those in need of mental health services face, despite efforts to increase worker pay. “The reality is, we don’t have the people to do the work,” she said. “We are facing an extreme mental health workforce crisis.” 

Advocates want short-term and long-term measures to address the staffing shortage, to build a future workforce and address barriers that keep people from working in the field. Tied to that is the need to build a diverse workforce, and to get more people working in rural Minnesota counties where staff is needed. 

Another issue is in-patient capacity. While advocates support a proposal by Children’s Hospital of St. Paul to add 22 in-patient beds, there are red flags over an M Health Fairview proposal to build a freestanding psychiatric hospital with about 144 beds. Abderholden explained that a traditional hospital setting provides a better range of health care supports and services. “You need to have access to everything,” she said. A hospital dedicated just to psychiatric needs doesn’t have those same flexibilities.  

Systems issues and mental health services concerns are another focus area. Jinny Palen of the Minnesota Association of Community Mental Health Programs emphasized the need to invest in an array of services. Those include affordable and supportive housing for people with mental illness, landlord risk mitigation, and funding to help people transition out of homelessness. 

Investments were emphasized including in front-end care and community-based services to reduce dependence on emergency and in-patient care. Support for the “first episode” programs for young people experiencing a first psychotic episode, and more support for teams including mobile crisis teams are also sought. 

Crisis services and suicide prevention are another priority. Mulvihill said that crisis services, including mobile units, provide a response that limits intersections with law enforcement and deters many hospitalizations. Having crisis teams and crisis homes available statewide are big needs. 

Suicide prevention is also important. There are calls for increased funding for suicide prevention, training, targeted support to communities that are experiencing high rates of violence, increased  outreach to farm communities and inclusion of enhanced safety measure in firearm education programs. 

Another focus is 9-8-8, designated by federal law in 2020 as the new nationwide, three-digit number for the national suicide prevention lifeline. The change occurs in July. Using a special telecom service charge to help pay for the service is urged. 

Kirsten Anderson of Aspire discussed children’s mental health issues, and the need for emergency relief to preserve the structure that is in place. Another need is to establish crisis stabilization services, so crisis residential homes can support children and help them manage crises. 

Improved mental health services in schools, expansion of intensive treatment and foster care, improved children’s residential treatment, and shelter services with mental health services provided are among other priorities. 

The criminal justice system was discussed by Elliot Butay of NAMI Minnesota. The spotlight is on ending criminalization of mental illness, which is sometimes coupled with systematic racism. The jail and probation systems lack resources to help people with mental illness. 

Building and funding a continuum of competency restoration services is a huge need, so that people have a fair chance to get help, instead of sitting in jail. Another issue is addressing gaps between civil and criminal court systems, to help people get treatment and avoid a revolving door of arrests and courts.  

“If you’re not competent to understand what’s happening in the courtroom, or work with your attorney to defend yourself, then it’s not constitutional to go through with charging you and sending you to trial,” Butay said. 

See the full presentations at https://mentalhealthmn.org/public-policy/mental-health-day-on-the-hill/ 

Disability Day at the Capitol February 22 drew more than 200 people, centered on a theme of “better together.” Several advocacy groups organized the event. 

Emcee Delia Samuel, a leader in multi-cultural efforts toward autism acceptance and recourse, told the group to not be discouraged and to work together. “What a formidable force we could be,” she said. 

Much of the focus was on legislation and updates from state lawmakers. The care staffing crisis, the need for the state to hire more people with disabilities and an array of changes to accessibility were among topics discussed. One sweeping effort led by the Minnesota Consortium for citizens with disabilities (MNCCD) addresses accessibility in a wide range of sensory, cognitive and physical ways, and across a wide range of state, county and school district programs and services. Criticism was leveled at programs including the Individualized Education program or IEP, which is meant to guide education for children with disabilities. 

“Disability services should be among the most accessible but that’s not the case,” said Jillian Nelson of the Autism Society of Minnesota (AuSM). 

Much focus was on making playgrounds more accessible and safer for children with disabilities including autism. Making sure that parks are safer, in terms of location and with fencing installed, are among the needs raised by groups including the Multi-Cultural Autism Action Network. The issue came to the forefront last year when a child with autism drowned in a suburban park. Too many children are drawn to lakes and other bodies of water.