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Mental health task force helping to shape state agenda

State Senator Paul Gazelka, right, listened to members of the Wadena County Mental Health Task Force discuss needs in rural Minnesota. At left, Sara Stone, with Tri-County Health Care, helped to facilitate the meeting. Anna Erickson/Pioneer Journal1 / 2
Wadena County Human Services Director Tanya Leskey talked about the need for preventive services. Anna Erickson/Pioneer Journal2 / 2

The Wadena County Mental Health Task Force has the ear of the state's senate majority leader this coming year and members of the group are hopeful progress can be made during the 2017 session.

Sen. Paul Gazelka will lead Senate Republicans in the majority in 2017 and visited with members of the task force before Christmas about mental health issues in rural Minnesota. He asked for a list of priorities that he could bring up at this year's legislative session.

"We recognize there's a health care crisis in Minnesota and mental health is one of the components that needs help," Gazelka said.

Since December 2015, representatives of 14 local organizations have been meeting in Wadena County to find creative, local solutions to the current crisis in managing acute mental health situations in the state. In a letter to legislators during last year's session, they asked for legislative actions that could help communities across the state. "There are three initiatives that have broad, statewide support from multiple stakeholder and advocacy groups. We need your help to pass them," the group wrote in the letter. The three legislative actions from that letter were:

• State support to fully fund and staff more beds at the Anoka Metro Regional Treatment Center and the various Community Behavioral Health Hospitals around the state.

• State support to fund additional competency restoration services.

• Support for the Excellence in Mental Health Act.

Gazelka heard updates from some members of the task force during his visit in Wadena.

"There's a police component, a hospital component, there's the 16-bed community bed facilities and more," he said.

Telemedicine sites will be set up in Wadena and Cass counties and that will help people receive the care they need faster.

"We sometimes have to travel up to an hour and a half," said Glenn Anderson with Northern Pines Mental Health Center, which serves six counties in the area.

"We'll be able to respond to a jail issue and it won't have to be a crisis," he said. "We'll have 24-hour service."

Wadena County Sheriff Mike Carr said more mental health beds are needed in the state.

"The jail is not the place for some of these people but we don't have anywhere else to bring them," he said.

Sometimes there's not enough space in the jail because of mental health holds, he added.

Wadena County Human Services Director Tanya Leskey said the need isn't just for more beds

"The state did provide more money for mental health intake beds but that's not the answer," she said. "The answer is community-supportive housing. That's really going to be the long-term answer. When we can support individuals with mental illness in our communities so that they're successful in reintegrating into our communities - that's when we know we've been successful."

Judge Sally Robertson said she agreed with Leskey about needing a long-term solution, crisis beds are also needed.

"We have a shortage of professionals in the area and one way to get more people would be to offer rural scholarships," she said. "Also, one of the main supports in the community can be the family and friends that don't abandon them. When we send them away to a facility then they are isolated and don't have that support."

Wellness in the Woods is looking into setting up a respite house for someone who is stressed and needs some extra support. A goal will be to prevent a mental health crisis. Wellness in the Woods already offers a peer to peer telephone support program and anyone is able to call if they are experiencing emotional distress. The phone number is (844) 739-6369.

Gazelka listened to the concerns and said he plans to relay them to the appropriate people during this coming legislative session.

Anna Erickson
Anna Erickson is editor of the Wadena Pioneer Journal.
(218) 631-2561