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'Get Connected' the message for Mental Health Month

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

For more than 50 years, Mental Health Month has been observed to raise the public's awareness of the wide range of conditions and the help that is available.

May is Mental Health Month, with the theme this year of "Get Connected" to family and friends, to a community and a sense of belonging, and to professional services that can provide information, coping skills and medical help.

But it's often more difficult than being able to go out and "Get Connected." Many obstacles still exist, despite the increasing public knowledge of the causes of mental illness and advances in treatment and management.

"There are road blocks to it," said Jim Pew, Director of Behavioral Medicine at Stevens Community Medical Center in Morris. "Some of it is insurance companies. Payments for mental health issues are much different than if you have a heart attack or a stroke. There's not that parity yet."

In addition, it's still more difficult in a rural area to get people to recognize they need mental health help and for them to seek it out.

"It's a lot more difficult to farm today than it ever has been," said Ted Matthews, Director of Rural Mental Health for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities. "There's a lot of stress involved with farming but most in it would never consider going to mental health professionals."

Mental health professionals are trying to break down those barriers every day of the year, but Mental Health Month provides visibility to those year-around efforts to "Get Connected."

Residents of West Central Minnesota have access to several options for social interaction.

About seven years ago, SCMC established the Bipolar and Manic Depression Support Group. It's a peer-led group - no professionals are involved - in which people coping with the disorders can share experiences and help each other out, Pew said.

Recently, a social club for those dealing with mental health issues was established. The group holds regular activities, such as a night out bowling or at the movies, that help people get together in a relaxed atmosphere.

And last fall, through a regional mental health group, a home was purchased and renovated to serve as a drop-in center in Morris. Other area communities also have established the drop-in homes.

"It's a place where people can come and just hang out," Pew said. "One thing with mental illness is that it can be very isolating. People stay in their homes and don't go out."

It's a move the state has recognized as a great benefit. Years ago, if a person was determined to be mentally ill, "they went away someplace," Pew said.

The state has since pushed community support, with more out-patient mental health treatment and more involvement in everyday life.

"The chances of recovery are a lot better if the community is willing to support them and provide services," Pew said.

But problems remain, he said. There are smaller in-patient facilities in the region but overall facility coverage has diminished with the closing of state mental health hospitals. It's also increasingly difficult to recruit psychiatrists and other mental health professionals to rural areas, and some facilities report waiting lists of up to a couple of months for new patients, Pew said.

"We really lost what we called the 'safety net,' " Pew said. "It took something away that we greatly needed. There's a lack of resources."

That's partly why Matthews travels throughout the country to help rural residents with life issues that could affect their mental health.

Matthews goes to communities, gets to know people and their culture, addresses issues in an informal setting - it's a first-name basis most of the time. In many ways, they consider talking with Matthews as talking with one of their long-time friends. He gets calls from people wanting to know if he wants to go golfing, or he might get an invitation to a graduation party.

"I can refer them to psychiatrists that I know, but they're going because I asked them to go, not because they see they have a problem," Matthews said.

The issues, especially on farms, are increasingly complex. The increased value of farm land can create great stress among families, as, too, can the growing roles family members are playing in an operation, Matthews said.

"Say land is worth $1,000 an acre and dad has 4,000 acres," he said. "That's a big issue for families. More women are working on the farm. It used to be they raised young farmers. But now they do things like the books, and if you do the books you know what's going on and when you know what's going on, you have an opinion. The dynamic of holding on to the concept of family farm is tough."

But farmers aren't unaware of the situation - "the stereotype of the dumb farmer on the land is gone," Matthews said. "Today, if you aren't a smart farmer, you're not a farmer." - and they are seeking help. Matthews' name appeared in a story in a farming magazine, and a farmer in Kentucky saw his name and called Matthews from his tractor.

"He and his wife were having problems and he wanted to know if I'd come down and help them," Matthews said.

But in other cases, Matthews can't rush rural residents to "Get Connected."

"If I brought it up to farmers, that it was Mental Health Month, they'd say 'What are you talking about?' " Matthews said. "They'd want to know why I brought it up - 'Do you need a donation?' These are hard issues to deal with and there are a lot of emotions involved with that."