Our View: Mental illness concerns need our attention

The numbers point to the problem. In 2014, Olmsted County saw 117 cases of people committed to mental health facilities for mental illness or chemical dependency. By May of this year, another 45 cases were seen.

For those patients, as well as others throughout the region, there are 16 available beds in our corner of the state.

According to Jim Behrends, the director of Olmsted County's Adult and Family Services, the majority of the 162 patients committed in a 17-month period landed in one of seven similar state-operated Community Behavioral Health Hospitals like the one located at 251 Wood Lake Drive SE in Rochester. Each facility has 16 beds for patients.

Of the 162 patients, 103 were committed for mental illness; 22 were treated for chemical dependency, and the remaining 37 were held because of a mix of mental health and dependency concerns.

But the numbers get worse. Behrends said resources at the state's short-term inpatient facilities are limited, meaning most can handle only 12 patients at a time. "We're losing 25 percent of our capacity," he said.


However, the need isn't dropping. As a result, the stress is rising.

"Mental health is having a huge impact on our communities," Olmsted County Attorney Mark Ostrem told county board members during his annual report in July. "With the loss of mental health beds, we could talk for hours on what is happening with mental health in our communities."

The problem doesn't stop with government agencies. Behrends noted the emergency room at Mayo Clinic Hospital-Rochester, St. Marys Campus, frequently faces a dilemma when mentally ill patients are diagnosed with needing inpatient treatment. The lack of beds means patients need to wait in emergency care until space is found, often in another community. "They can literally spend more than a day and sometimes days waiting for space," he said.

While mental illness is too often a hidden problem, either lurking in the shadows or being actively ignored, the increasing challenges of finding treatment options require more light to be shed on the issue.

That's why we're glad to see First Presbyterian Church tackling the topic at its Forums at First event Tuesday. According to Ken Aalderks, the forum seeks to raise awareness of local issues and start dialogues that could lead to solutions. "It would be nice if someone could come up with options for resolving the issue," he said.

The issue will be addressed by Dr. Gabrielle Melin, a consultant physician and professor of psychiatry at the Mayo Clinic, who will address how the lack of mental health beds affects emergency room resources. She will be joined by Mayo Clinic emergency room physician Casey Clements and others in a discussion of the emotional, physical and financial costs of mental illness on families and the community.

We look forward to hearing what unfolds.

Like Aalderks, we hope solutions can be found. But, for now, we'll be content with knowing more people are opening their eyes to the problems and starting to look for ways to resolve them.

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