The prevalence of mental illness means all of us have a stake in ensuring that treatment is not only available but close to home, so that family and friends can support struggling loved ones. That's why a recent decision by the Elk River City Council to greenlight a treatment center within city limits sets a compassionate example for other Minnesota communities to follow.
On Tuesday, Mayor John Dietz and three other council members voted to approve the permit sought by a private firm to convert a vacant former Masonic lodge into what is known as an "intensive residential treatment services," or IRTS, center. The facility, which is expected to open this year after renovations to the building, will have room for up to 16 people and will help fill a dire gap in the state's mental health treatment system. It will be operated by ResCare Minnesota Inc. — Brooklyn Center.
IRTS centers provide "live-in mental health services" to help people who were recently hospitalized transition back to independent living, according to the state Department of Human Services (DHS). These facilities may also be used in lieu of hospitalization. Services include treatment staff on site 24 hours a day, nursing services, medication management and assistance with everyday living activities — such as budgeting and shopping, cooking, and developing employment skills. Capacity is limited to 16 beds.
In Minnesota, the number of IRTS centers has long lagged behind the need for these services, leaving family members scrambling to provide care or causing people to be hospitalized longer than necessary. The number of Americans grappling with a serious mental illness underscores the demand. In 2016, an estimated 10.4 million adults age 18 or older had a serious mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. That's 4.2 percent of all U.S. adults.
While not all of them will need hospitalization or IRTS-level care, there should be an abundance of options for those who do, not the dearth that currently exists. There are currently 54 IRTS and shorter-stay "Residential Crisis Stabilization" facilities in Minnesota, with a capacity of 707 beds. DHS officials don't have an estimate of how many beds are needed but said that many of these programs "have waiting lists, including nearly all the facilities in the metro counties. In greater Minnesota, people have to travel farther from their home communities to receive services."
There currently are no IRTS facilities in Sherburne County, where Elk River is located. The same holds true in several surrounding counties, such as Wright and Benton. The new Elk River IRTS, which will have 16 beds, will provide close-to-home care in these northwest exurban areas.
The vote in Elk River was not an easy one, Mayor Dietz said. Some residents who live nearby were opposed to it, and the city has previously put up hurdles to proposals from ResCare. Sadly, other Minnesota communities, such as Forest Lake, have halted proposed mental health treatment centers for no good reason. Credit Elk River city leaders for not following Forest Lake's shameful 2018 example.
Dietz said the decision was one of the toughest in his 24 years on the council. He voted yes in part because he feared a legal challenge if the council denied the permit. He also added: "I didn't want Elk River to be known as a city that is not compassionate to those who need help."
The city made the right decision. Mental health care advocates also made a difference. And state Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, merits praise for contacting some council members and urging support. Zerwas previously served as a Elk River council member, and the facility is in his old ward.
DHS Commissioner Tony Lourey lauded the Elk River City Council and urged support elsewhere. "We need to keep working together to build a continuum of mental health services, including intensive residential treatment facilities that give people community-based support, treatment and stabilization when they are ready to leave hospital care. It's so important to families and communities that these facilities be close by when a loved one needs care," Lourey said, noting that Gov. Tim Walz's budget calls for a 16-bed increase at state-operated IRTS facilities. "I hope more communities will follow Elk River in welcoming these crucial services."