Minneapolis Star Tribune. February 16, 2021.

Editorial: When weather attacks and the system fails

The power grid groans down south, but renewable energy isn't the reason.

The stubborn cold weather of late isn't out of character for a Minnesota winter, but it's been a major disruption, and a deadly one, for points south.

Millions are without electricity and heat when they need it most, primarily in Texas, in some cases leading people to dangerous alternatives. This happened not because power lines were down but because there wasn't enough juice to go around. Texas has shunned federal oversight of its power grid, and its now-awkwardly named Electric Reliability Council was forced to order rolling blackouts to prevent a wider collapse.

Minnesota experienced something similar in 2019, though not on as broad a scale, when shortages in some areas led Xcel Energy to ask customers elsewhere to dial down indoor temperatures to as low as 60 degrees. Then, as now, there were calls to reconsider a growing emphasis on renewable energy in favor of "reliable" sources like coal, natural gas and nuclear power.

We use the word "reliable" in air quotes not because we fail to see the distinction between always-on and not-always-on energy sources, but because natural gas is actually one of the problems in the Lone Star State. Weather "well beyond the design parameters of an extreme Texas winter" knocked gas-fired power plants offline. The plants use water, and water freezes.

At the same time, so do wind turbines, and that's been a problem this week in Texas, too — just less of one for a state where gas generates 40% of the electricity and wind 23%, according to the Reliability Council.

Add to that the nature of deregulation, and — according to one observer at the University of Houston — the Texas power grid "collapsed in exactly the same manner as the old Soviet Union. It limped along on underinvestment and neglect until it finally broke under predictable circumstances."

Direct lessons for Minnesota are perhaps muted, then, accustomed as we are to both extreme weather and active governance. Still, it's worth remembering that fossil fuel use leads to climate change leads to weather that exceeds expectations, and also that there's an impossible-to-ignore chasm in this state between people who'd freeze fossil fuel infrastructure in its tracks and those who are skeptical of climate change and renewable energy.

Somewhere between these extremes, there's a wide needle to thread.

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St. Cloud Times. February 12, 2021.

Editorial: Mental health care picture is brightening, but progress remains far too slow

For the past 30 years, health care has been at the center of America's political discourse, dating all the way back to the 1990s when the Clinton White House made it an (unsuccessful) centerpiece of its agenda.

It's been almost as long since the introduction of the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, which aimed to put insurance coverage for mental health care on even ground with coverage for medical care. The act, finally passed in 2008 (six years after Wellstone's death), wasn't ultimately put into effect until 2010.

For at least the past six years, police and jails in Central Minnesota have told the Times about their lack of preparation as de facto first-line mental health responders. Central Minnesota families we've talked to have agreed.

For the past year, defunding the police has been part of the mainstream conversation. When the concept is broken down without emotion and politics, it seeks to lift some responsibility for non-law enforcement tasks — like responding to mental health crises — from their shoulders.

Less than a year ago, St. Cloud police instituted a program that pairs mental health professionals with police to respond to mental health emergencies.

And soon, St. Cloud Hospital will have a space and a program for treating mental health emergencies.

All that action and discussion marks welcome progression in the fight to treat mental illness early, appropriately, without stigmatization and not as a primarily criminal issue. It's progress deserving of celebration.

The shocking and tragic events at a Buffalo medical clinic last week, however, show how urgently we need to redouble efforts toward improvements in mental health care in increments of less than decades.

The man accused of killing medical assistant Lindsay Overbay last week and putting four of her colleagues in the hospital, three in critical condition, was well-known to police. He has a long history of mental health problems that were known to medical workers, law enforcement, the courts and others in the community.

One of the more common reactions to that information was both predictable and infuriating: "It would have been nice if they'd done something about it sooner."

It would have. Exactly what?

Minnesotans in the midst of a mental health crisis, particularly in rural areas, may wait days and travel hundreds of miles to get space in a treatment facility. And that's only if they have the capacity to navigate the labyrinthine systems set up to help them find that help and pay for it.

Imagine if, in the midst of a stroke, we expected the patient to work their way through pre-approvals from insurers or public agencies' phone trees and coverage qualification standards, then drive themselves five counties over to see a doctor, then wait several days for a hospital bed another three counties away. And all because, in their own town, there was no primary care for their condition to head off the stroke in the first place.

Imagine that. That's what our mental health care system is like for many Minnesotans.

Mental health crises are just that — crises. They constitute acute needs that require no less urgent treatment than heart attacks or injuries from a car crash.

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Mankato Free Press. February 15, 2021.

Editorial: Suicide call centers' opening is timely

First and foremost, you should know that feeling somewhat gloomy right now is perfectly understandable. The continuing pandemic, daily struggles and a long stretch of bitter cold weather can add up to a bit of mental health meltdown.

But also know that if the weight is getting too heavy and seems more like mayhem than minor meltdown, help is available. Luckily, that assistance is now faster and more focused on Minnesotans' specific needs with the opening of four new suicide prevention call centers in the state.

The centers are part of a network belonging to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Callers to the lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) are routed to a center near them based on their phone number so they can deal with a counselor in touch with local resources. Family and friends concerned about loved ones' mental health also are encouraged to call the number.

As of last week, the state opened the new call centers to better serve Minnesotans. The new centers are a result of $1.2 million in funding allocated to the program by the 2019 state Legislature. The state hasn't had a locally based National Suicide Prevention Lifeline call center since spring 2018, when it shut down because of lack of funding. It's good timing that the program has returned.

Such assistance was in high demand before the pandemic slammed us. In Greater Minnesota where many farmers are struggling, the shortage of help was noticeable — and sometimes deadly. Farmers are among the most likely to die by suicide, compared with other occupations, according to a January 2020 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made the help even more important. Deacon Tim Dolan, of the New Um Diocese and a former Extension educator, has for years counseled farm families in distress. He told The Free Press last fall that in the first months of the pandemic, his services were sought out and he probably talked to three to five families a day.

For many people, the pandemic is exacerbating much of the previously existing stress and adding another layer on top of it. Mental health deserves our attention. The Lifeline is free, confidential and available 24/7. It is a first step to getting people the help they need.

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