Mental health system changes are championed 

Building Minnesota’s mental health system requires work on several fronts, and addressing needs of many different groups. Children’s mental health, employment […]

A crowd gathered on the capitol's west steps before going inside for the rally

Building Minnesota’s mental health system requires work on several fronts, and addressing needs of many different groups. Children’s mental health, employment accommodations, stable housing, suicide prevention, adequate reimbursements for services and addressing the ongoing workforce shortage are among topics the Minnesota Mental Health Network is championing this legislative session. The ability to access proper care when it is needed, and break down barriers to care, were also emphasized.  

A large and enthusiastic group of advocates attended 2023 Mental Health Day on the Hill March 9, glad to be back in person after two years of virtual events. Hundreds of people filled a church sanctuary and the capitol rotunda, to hear updates and speakers. They discussed 18 comprehensive mental health bills which they say would solve many problems if passed. 

They also gave legislators tiny foam bricks, to indicate the importance of building a quality mental health system. 

“The mental health system was never broken. It was never built,’” said Sue Abderholden, executive director of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) Minnesota. 

The Mental Health Legislative Network represents more than 40 organizations. Members said they are confident they’ll enjoy some success this session. 

A message from several speakers is that mental health service needs have increased, in some cases dramatically, in recent times. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health. 

In some cases, services must be created. For others, such as the 988 crisis line, adequate resources are needed. 

The overriding message March 9 was how missing pieces in the current mental health system affect Minnesotans, and how employment, housing and health needs are among issues tied to improving mental health. Speakers discussed the disconnect between some services, the long waits for services, the lack of culturally specific services and the complexity of getting proper care for someone in crisis. Problems of all types are especially acute in Greater Minnesota, where there are severe staffing shortages and fewer resources. 

Legislators and community members spoke of their own experiences trying to help family members get needed mental health services, or in getting help from themselves. One foster care provider described the months she and her family struggled to help a teen who needed services. 

“If our system can’t do better for these kids, who will?” said foster parent Abigail Morgan. 

“I think this is going to be record investments because we’re in a record crisis,” said Rep. Jessica Hanson (DFL-Burnsville). She is sponsor of a comprehensive bill aimed at improving children’s access to mental health services and providing more assistance for families. She is also involved with 988 legislation. 

“We hear stories all the time. ‘I can’t get care for my kid. I sat in the ER for hours’ . . . I have personally navigated the mental health system. It is not easy to do,’” said Hanson. 
Patrick Rhone, chair of the Mental Health Minnesota Board, described his years of live with mental illness. He focused on the need for culturally services when a BIPOC person is in crisis. “I’ll be honest, I’m a Black man,” he said. “I’m not going to call 911. We know how that’s going to go.” 

Craig Warren, CEO of Washburn Center for Children, also spoke of the need for culturally specific resources as well as more resources for children’s mental health. Warren described the mental health system he works in as something “cobbled” together. Washburn has seen demand for services explode since the pandemic, with a waiting list that has tripled. 

“Kids and families are suffering now,” said Warren. 

Warren and others spoke of the need for more people to see who in the mental health field as a career choice. There is especially a need for BIPOC and LGBTQ-plus mental health providers. But since rates have not kept up with costs, it is more and more  challenging to even hire and pay providers. New hires have not kept up with the number of people who have retired due to burnout or aging out of the system. 
The need to raise Medical Assistance reimbursement rates was cited by several speakers. While the state is studying the rate structure, advocates are calling for changes now as a bridge rate. 

Ashley Kjos is CEO of Woodland Centers in west central Minnesota. She was one of the speakers focusing on the rate issue, saying that the rates paid to behavioral health and substance abuse treatment providers need change. 

“We have been underpaid for decades. It is time for us to get paid what we are worth,” Kjos said. She said more centers will close if rates aren’t addressed. 

Rate increases and the ability to pay more would especially help providers in Greater Minnesota, Kjos said. Woodland has at least 15 open jobs at a time, something that would have been unheard of not too many years ago. 

The center also has more than 100 people waiting for services. 

Lt Gov. Peggy Flanagan urged those present to keep working for and demanding what they need for mental health. “You are the experts in your own lives,” she told the group, noting that they know best about their own lives and lived experiences. 

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