Before the COVID-19 pandemic started in 2020, Hennepin County officials estimated that more than 230,000 adults and children were diagnosed with a mental illness.

In the following months, the number of people reporting symptoms of anxiety or depression disorders quadrupled, and suicide became the state's second-leading cause of death among younger adults.

On Tuesday, the County Board approved $20 million of federal COVID-designated funding to hire 36 employees who will significantly expand mental health services, especially to communities disproportionately hurt by the pandemic. The allocation will increase programs in schools and home visits by social workers, create an alternative 911 approach for mental health calls and allow a critical detox and crisis center in Minneapolis to serve clients 24 hours a day.

County officials believe the funding will improve services for more than 11,000 residents through reduced emergency room visits and admissions at state hospitals, school suspensions for students of color and child protection involvement.

"This grows the interest to solve issues by interconnecting health, human services and public safety," said Commissioner Irene Fernando. "It's more of a restorative approach. Instead of punishing people for behavior, illness or a need for support, the county is saying that you are deserving of our care."

The board also approved $10 million to support public health and community-initiated solutions to improve maternal health outcomes. While the county doesn't have statistics for pregnancy-related deaths, national figures show deaths have grown from 7.2 per 100,000 live births in 1987 to 17.3 per 100,000 in 2017.

"Babies born to women and birthing people who identify as American Indian, Asian, Black, and Latino have rates of low birth weight that are higher than average. These people are less likely to receive adequate prenatal care," said Meredith Martinez, a county family health area manager.

The $30 million will come out of the $245 million the county received this year from the federal American Rescue Plan Act. The initiatives meet funding guidelines to enhance medical or public health services for vulnerable populations and outreach programs exacerbated by the pandemic, and promote healthy childhood environments.

The county also received $220 million from the federal CARES Act in 2020, a large portion which has been spent on affordable housing, emergency rental assistance, small business support and a range of pandemic health expenditures. More than $150 million of the Rescue Plan funding has been earmarked but need not be spent until 2024.

In addition to the direct harm to health caused by the COVID-19 virus, the pandemic has also worsened many existing societal challenges. The secondary effects of COVID-19, such as social isolation, economic instability and lack of access to care, has heightened the urgency to invest in maternal mental health, county officials said.

During the pandemic, emergency visits for mental health issues by children 12 to 17 nationwide increased 31%, Blacks and Hispanics were less likely to seek help for mental illness, and youth were more likely to drop out of school. Nearly 70% of youth involved in the juvenile justice system have a diagnosable mental health condition.

"We see the private market leaving mental health because it doesn't pay," Commissioner Debbie Goettel said. "But programs we are funding with this money, such as embedding social workers with police departments, have significantly lowered the number of calls officers need to handle."

Beyond expanding existing programs, the $20 million approved Tuesday will include the development of culturally specific networks of mental health services, a pilot program with 911 that will offer an alternative response to mental health-related calls, and new services to reduce out-of-home placement of children and in-home treatment and recovery for families experiencing a substance abuse disorder.

The entire board expressed the importance of the expansion of the crisis center at 1800 Chicago Av. S. to expand its services to 24 hours a day and seven days a week. Instead of a hospital or jail, the program is an important alternative for law enforcement to bring a person with a mental health crisis, Commissioner Chris LaTondresse said.

"I witnessed it firsthand during a ride-along with paramedics," he said. "It was striking."

David Chanen • 612-673-4465