Gary Cunningham

For over 20 years, Gary Cunningham has served as the top leader of philanthropic, health care, public policy and educational organizations. Currently, Gary serves as vice president, chief program officer for the Northwest Area Foundation. He is responsible for carrying out the foundation's mission to support efforts by the people, organizations and communities to reduce poverty and achieve sustainable prosperity.

Mental Health: A Bipartisan Success Story

Posted by: Gary Cunningham under Society, Government, Politics Updated: February 28, 2010 - 9:41 PM

Mental Health: A Bipartisan Success Story

 “The mental health services delivery system needs dramatic reform. The system is fragmented and in disarray—not from lack of commitment and skill of those who deliver care, but from underlying structural, financial, and organizational problems.”

-- President’s New Freedom Commission
One day in 1977 my Aunt Sharon called me and asked me to come down to Hennepin County Medical Center. My Uncle Moe had had a complete mental breakdown and was hospitalized. This was my first encounter with the mental health system and one that I will never forget.
It was certainly tragic at the time: here was somebody that had an abundance of intellect who had developed the community gardens in South Minneapolis in the early 1970s and later went on to build a co-op grocery store in the same community several years later. Moe was certainly considered a community leader and today if you can walk or ride under the Fourth Avenue Bridge on the Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis, there will you find a sculpture of my Uncle Moe on the wall along with other community leaders that have been memorialized for their work to make this city and the world a better place.
He and my Aunt Sharon were the people that taught me how to read and write, who got me interested in making a difference for others. When I had run away from home and lived on the streets for a while, he was the one that found me and provided a safe and stable place through my adolescent years.
There I was - 19 years old with my Aunt Sharon having to face a difficult choice of committing my uncle to the Anoka Regional Treatment Center. Up until that point in my life I had never had to deal with any real issues related to mental illness. In the community where I lived, people with mental health issues were always hidden or joked about. People with mental illness were "crazy". As if mental illness was a personal character defect, it was something you didn’t talk about too much for fear it could happen to you. The myths and stereotypes, the stigma and shame associated with mental illness remains with us today.
Mental illness is an issue that crosses all racial, economic and political lines. Mental illness is something that we can all relate to through our own personal stories. According to Wikipedia, "The recognition and understanding of mental health conditions has changed over time and across cultures, and there are still variations in the definition, assessment, and classification of mental disorders, although standard guideline criteria are widely accepted. Over a third of people in most countries report meeting criteria for the major categories at some point in their lives."
Many families and individuals are touched by and deal with the very real challenges in seeking treatment and arranging care for loved ones with mental illness. The systems of support and treatment for people with mental illness back in 1974 were confusing and difficult to navigate. And in many cases the mental health system remains so today.
According to a report prepared for Minnesota Blue Cross Blue Shield, "Mental illness has a profound effect in our community. The U. S. Surgeon General’s report estimates that 28 percent of the nation’s adults and 21 percent of children ages 9 to 17 have a mental health or chemical dependency disorder. Using national trends as a rough indicator of Minnesota’s experience, this means that over one million Minnesota adults and 140,000 Minnesota children have a mental health or chemical dependency disorder."
It is funny how life works. In 2003, under the leadership of former Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services Kevin Goodno, I was asked to co-chair with Kevin a public/private partnership called the Minnesota Mental Health Action Group (MMHAG) to address some of the significant issues and dysfunctions of the Minnesota mental health system. 
 
MMHAG was a broad-based coalition of consumers, advocacy organizations, mental health professionals, hospitals, clinics, labor, health plans, local government agencies and officials, and the Minnesota Department of Human Services and Health. MMHAG had a vision to create a comprehensive mental health system that is accessible and responsive to consumers, guided by clear goals and outcomes, and grounded in public/private partnerships
 
At the time I was Board Chair of the Citizens League and CEO of Northpoint Health and Wellness Center which has a large mental health center in North Minneapolis. Given my family history and the significant challenges faced in attempting to integrate mental and physical health at Northpoint, this was opportunity I could not pass up.
When I first got involved in this project, I was told by Sean Kershaw, the President of the Citizens League, that this was a six month commitment and it should not be too difficult. Four years later, I was wondering what I had gotten myself into. After much effort and with the input of thousands of citizens, mental health professionals and families impacted by mental health, MMHAG’s efforts resulted in the 2007 enactment of the most comprehensive package of mental health system improvements and funding increases that have occurred since the original enactment of the state’s mental health acts in the 1980’s. (Go to http://www.citizensleague.org/what/committees/mmhag/updates-1/ to review some of MMHAG's accomplishments)
 
About two years ago, at the invitation of Minnesota Senator Linda Berglin, I had the opportunity to present the accomplishments of MMHAG at a national conference on mental health. I was very surprised to see how far we have come in comparison to other states. I was taken aback to see how far we have yet to go to ensure that all people with mental illness can live without stigma and have access to quality affordable mental and physical health services.
My contribution to this effort was very small compared to those of people like Kevin Goodno, Michael Scandrett, Sue Abderholden, Glenn Andis, Mary Braddock, Ron Brand, Theresa Carufel, Gail Dorfman, Kris Flaten, Paul Goering, Peggy Heglund, Joel Hetler, Kathy Knight, Mark Kuppe, Steve Lepkinski,Cal Ludeman, Maureen Marrin, Mark McAfee, Sandra Meicher, Kathy Mock, Roberta Opheim, Carolyn Pare, Patricia M. Siebert, Jonathan Uecker, Denny Ulmer, and Donna Zimmerman as well as countless others. I was honored that I could play a small part in this work that had such personal meaning in my life.
The Minnesota Mental Health Action Group was a successful bipartisan effort to address some fundamental issues with the mental health system in our state. It demonstrated that we can work together across the political divide to create a better system for people and families who live with mental illness.
However, the Minnesota mental health system is not fixed by any means. As I write this, thousands of our fellow citizens with mental health issues may be forced to go without any health insurance at all because of the looming cuts to General Assistance Medical Care. Many are single men without the type of family support that my Uncle Moe had; many who will lose their insurance are our poorest citizens making less than $8000 a year.
Minnesota, we can do better!
Through a long recovery period and medications my Uncle Moe was able to resume the life he loved making a difference for others working for the Minneapolis Urban League. Several years later in the 1980s, before his death, he was instrumental in creating a community celebration called Family Day in North Minneapolis which is still held every year to reinforce and honor the value and the importance of families in creating a sustainable community.
My Uncle Moe is a testament to the thousands of people living with mental illness who have made and continue to make significant contributions to our community.
For more information on mental health and what you can do to address the stigma contact: The National Alliance on Mental Illness at http://www.namihelps.org/

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