Special Report: No Longer Alone

ROCHESTER, Minn. (KTTC) — People suffering a mental health crisis often find it difficult to get the care they need. In many cases, they end up in the emergency room or forced to travel across state lines to find facilities offering the right kind of treatment.

“There’s a lot of us who need help. Somehow, we fall through the cracks,” said Karen Tracy.

Tracy struggled with multiple mental disorders her whole life.

“I just thought it was normal that everybody felt that way, that they just want to jump out a window,” she said.

She’s not alone — one in five adults in America have a mental illness — and she knows more than most that finding treatment in a timely matter can mean life or death.

After being a patient at 28 different mental health centers and institutions across the country, Tracy knows that when it comes to mental health, sometimes you have to be your own advocate.

“No one wants to feel the way we feel. We all want to be happy,” said Tracy.

90 percent of people who die by suicide have an underlying mental illness, and 60 percent of adults with a mental illness did not receive mental health services in the previous year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“Once in a while you get a calling, and this was a calling for me,” he said.  Both of Senjem’s parents struggled with Schizophrenia. His family’s struggle has led Senjem on a personal crusade.

To solve the mental health crisis issue in Minnesota, Rochester State Sen. Dave Senjem helped introduce bills and helped secure 60 million dollars in bonding dollars with bipartisan support.

30 million would fund construction or renovation of six behavioral health crisis centers and 30 million would go towards three long-term supportive housing with stabilization services in Minnesota. This would provide an intermediate level of assessment and treatment that hasn’t been around before.

“If it’s 3 o’clock in the morning, you have a crisis, you find the crisis center, you don’t go to the emergency room,” said Sen. Senjem (R) Rochester.

And, for perhaps the first time, all 87 counties in the state sent resolutions to the legislature urging passage of the bill, signaling a step forward

Prior to that, there has been a growing recognition about the need for more facilities that assess, treat, and house people with serious mental health issues.

“There was a point in time and still exists, where there was hardly a meeting I went to, where I didn’t hear about mental illness.” said Senjem.

For perhaps the first time, all 87 counties in the state sent resolutions to the legislature urging passage of the bill, signaling a step forward.

Mental-health experts point to deinstitutionalization – a national trend since the 1950s to shift psychiatric services out of hospitals and into community settings.

In the 1970s and 80s, Minnesota had 11 large state mental hospitals, including one in Rochester. We now have just two in Anoka and St.Peter.

“We closed them down relying on outpatient treatment, pharmaceuticals and so on to handle patients that had been in these 11 hospitals,” said Sen. Senjem.

But not enough has been done since identifying the problem and in many ways feels like an epidemic, says Senjem.

Courtney Lawson, the executive director of NAMI southeast Minnesota, says the mental health system isn’t meeting the growing demand.

“Waitlists for psychiatrists vary, but they can be out a couple months for adults and even longer for children,” said Lawson. “The challenge is to find a way to meet people where they’re at when they’re ready to seek care.”

Sen. Senjem learned about the need for more mental health facilities when he was invited to observe the emergency room at Mayo Clinic’s St. Marys hospital in 2013.

The emergency department there sees more than 3,000 patients with mental illness a year. About seven patients are boarded in the emergency department daily while they wait for psychiatric placement, according to Mayo Clinic’s latest data in 2016.

“They’re boarding in the emergency department until they’re able to get connected to the right level of care that they need, which means that a bed has to open up.”

That means some patients have to travel to Duluth or where a psychiatric bed is available.

“It’s difficult because then they’re further away from their support system and their family,” said Lawson.

Cities, counties, and other public entities have until mid-December to request up to $5 million from the state to fund construction of behavioral health crisis facilities in their respective communities. From there, the state will select six project proposals. Olmsted, Dodge, and Faribault counties are among many others in southern Minnesota that have expressed interest.

Wherever they get placed, construction is expected to start sometime in 2019 with openings in 2020.

The costs to people receiving care would depend on the service. Most mental health care is covered by insurance, according to the Department of Human Services. If a patient does not have insurance, these 24/7 centers will still provide care, making sure people like Karen don’t fall through the cracks.

“People are already recognizing this legislation in other states and talking about this innovative approach that Minnesota is taking. I’m guessing within five  years, we are going to lead the nation in the way that we’re dealing with these kinds of issues,” said Senjem.

Linda Ha

Linda Ha

Reporter | @LindaHaTV | lha@kttc.com

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