There’s a simple message that needs to be spread throughout our cities and our neighborhoods, and in our own homes: It’s OK to talk to one another about mental health issues.

Millions of Minnesotans struggle with all types of mental illness each year, and some of us need help.

In an age of rapid communication and overwhelming information, one would think this simple message would be pervasive. Unfortunately, there are hundreds of needless deaths and fractured homes around Minnesota each year as a result of untreated mental illness.

We may all know someone dealing with depression-related thoughts or struggling to face difficult circumstances in their life. For those battling long-term issues with their mental health, there are far-reaching implications. Individuals who do not receive treatment can fall into the criminal justice system or become homeless. Every day, our social safety net picks up where our under-resourced mental health services leave off.

Left without help, some Minnesotans’ struggling with mental health turn to suicide. And suicide is never about only one life. Behind every one of the 783 deaths by suicide in Minnesota in 2017, there are dinner tables that will have an empty seat, family photos with a missing face, and communities losing one of their most precious resources.

Mental health professionals can and do save lives daily. Between 80% and 90% of individuals with depression respond positively to treatment. But too many treatments are cut short based on arbitrary timelines for care. The United States has 97% fewer beds in psychiatric facilities than it did in the 1950s — and fewer beds per capita than in the 1850s.

These should be troubling statistics, especially given that the suicide rate has increased 53% in Minnesota and around the country since 1999.

While the reduction in the number of beds for psychiatric care started as a well-intentioned response to mass institutionalization, it has led to mental health providers being routinely ill-equipped to serve those in need. Under current law, some patients can be forced out of some psychiatric facilities, called Institutes for Mental Disease (IMD), for days at a time, with patients’ needs often unmet.

This glaring loophole, called the IMD exclusion, specifically impacts individuals seeking short-term care in mental health facilities with more than 16 beds. In fact, some psychiatric facilities have pulled their number of beds, resolving to treat fewer patients rather than none at all. This interruption can be devastating and can mean the difference between a tragedy and the first step on the road to recovery.

Approximately 80% of current psychiatric hospitals fall within the threshold of an IMD, making it more difficult than ever for patients to access care without arbitrary restrictions. These restrictions impact a patient group with the highest need for quality care. About 52% of individuals who have survived a suicide attempt ultimately become suicide victims. If we can’t offer proper care, how can we expect to prevent this?

I recently introduced the Expanding Access to Mental Health Act. This bill eliminates the arbitrary cap on the number of beds for providers who receive a fixed reimbursement and allows a patient’s routine of care to be determined by their needs and the guidance of their doctor, not a bureaucrat. Closing this loophole will mean that patients are able to receive the effective treatment they deserve, improving outcomes and giving individuals the opportunity to heal.

By expanding access to mental health treatment, I am confident we can help individuals suffering from mental illnesses receive the treatment they need. Even one lost life — one friend, one colleague, one partner — is too many.

The quality of our mental health is an essential component of who we are as individuals. We cannot be uncomfortable to discuss it. As government at every level works to improve the delivery of mental health care and services to those in need, I encourage you to talk with your family members, your friends, your colleagues and your community members. Let them know you are there for them and willing to listen. Even the smallest gesture can help.


Tom Emmer represents Minnesota’s Sixth District in the U.S. House.