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Donna Grethen, Tribune Media Services

A comprehensive solution to mental illness is needed

  • Article by: LUCINDA JESSON
  • December 2, 2012 - 8:25 PM

For decades, troubling stories about people with mental illnesses remaining unnecessarily in hospitals -- or worse, in jails -- have drawn attention to the need for more appropriate care. Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek's commentary ("A jail is no place for the mentally ill," Nov. 25) paints such a concerning picture. It is clear that we need to do a better job when anyone who needs treatment in a mental-health facility is languishing in a jail cell.

The answer is not, however, simply building more psychiatric hospital beds. We need to help move people effectively through the entire system of care -- a system currently fraught with potential obstacles. Some people don't get basic mental-health care in jail, or have trouble getting from a correctional setting to an appropriate mental-health facility. Others get into our state-operated psychiatric system and are successfully treated, but the courts don't recognize their progress and keep them confined. Still others can't be discharged because there are not enough suitable community options. And some return to the community, only to meet resistance in our neighborhoods and workplaces.

The good news is that Minnesota knows a great deal about how to address these issues. We are a leader in the community-based treatments and other supports that allow people to receive care close to family and friends, where they are most likely to be successful. This includes implementation of evidence-based practices that help people make the transition from inpatient psychiatric care to less-restrictive settings.

It also includes multidisciplinary mental-health teams in our communities that provide crisis assistance to help prevent hospitalization. And we have recognized that those in law enforcement often have been on the front lines when responding to people having a mental-health crisis. That's why we have helped train more than 400 police officers across the state in crisis intervention, a nationally recognized protocol. We applaud the Hennepin County Sheriff's Department and other law-enforcement agencies in Minnesota that are actively seeking ways to better serve people with mental illnesses.

Other promising efforts are in the works. Hennepin County District Judge Jay Quam has convened a committee to look at these issues with the help of the National Alliance of Mental Illness Minnesota (NAMI) and others. By improving the way our corrections and judicial systems interact with people who have mental illnesses, we relieve pressure on available services.

We also are asking the federal government to make changes that would help us create additional services in the community and free up capacity at the Anoka-Metro Regional Treatment Center, a state-operated psychiatric hospital, for those who need an acute level of care. We need to continue to develop more crisis teams and other community supports in remote areas of the state to ensure that no matter where you live, an appropriate level of care will be available.

One of the most important things we can do as a community is to open our minds and our hearts to people with mental illness. An estimated one in four adults has a mental illness -- our coworkers, our neighbors, our friends, our family, ourselves. With that knowledge as a starting point, we are well-positioned to make sure we have a system of care that helps everyone thrive.

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Lucinda Jesson is commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services.

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