Can crisis centers fix state's mental health problems?

Casey Clements has been sounding the alarm on mental health issues for years. On Tuesday, he and fellow Mayo Clinic doctor Bruce Sutor got to make their pitch directly to lawmakers.

After painting a picture of a community and state in dire needs of more resources, they'll now wait to see what, if anything, will get done about the state's mental health crisis.

Clements said that Mayo Clinic has housed hundreds of mental health patients in its emergency room for a total of 1,963 days because medical experts determined the patients weren't of a safe mindset to be discharged. The average stay lasted seven days, effectively gumming up the medical system while not adequately addressing the patient's immediate needs.

Officials from various Olmsted County departments and other organizations in the area presented similar stories and stark numbers to Sen. Dave Senjem and the Senate Capital Investment Committee while pleading for the Minnesota Legislature to fund regional behavioral health crisis centers across the state.

"The emergency room is not a healing place for mental health patients … so we need to work together to think outside the box," Clements said, further noting that "patients are spiraling into this system and this is just going to keep getting worse until we figure something out."


While Clements sees the day-to-day issues at the ground level, Sutor has spent much of the last two years seeking solutions as part of Gov. Dayton's Task Force on Mental and Behavioral Health. That task force identified gaps in continuum of care for mental health patients, which the proposed crisis centers could help solve.

State lawmakers voiced support during Tuesday's gathering with local officials, but they face difficult decisions in the months ahead. The state has received bonding requests totaling $3.5 billion, but only about $800 million worth — or 23 percent — are expected to receive funding.

"I lived this growing up with (my) mom and dad," said Senjem, who chairs the Senate Capital Investment Committee, and whose parents both struggled with mental illness. "There was always a place (to go). There's not a place anymore."

Olmsted County Sheriff Kevin Torgerson said he's dealing with two situations right now that illustrate Senjem's point. One person in critical need of mental health care has been held at the jail for 45 days while waiting to be transferred elsewhere. Another person is now facing criminal charges after assaulting Mayo Clinic staff while being held for a mental health issue.

The larger data supports Torgerson's concern, too. Olmsted County's Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) responded to 621 mental health calls in 2016 that resulted in 502 transports to the ER. Officials have determined that 45 percent of those transports would have been better served by a crisis center, as has been proposed.

Courtney Lawson, executive director of NAMI Southeast Minnesota, told the group that she self-medicated and struggled for nearly a decade before finally receiving the diagnosis and care she needed for her mental health issues. She counts herself lucky for surviving to become an outspoken advocate, while simultaneously hoping that the need to rely on luck will soon be coming to an end.

"A lot of times, someone just needs that person to talk to," Lawson said. "But I think we depend too much on luck."

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