Mental health advocates have their say at the state Capitol

MARSHALL – With the state facing a $1.1 billion budget deficit, advocating for mental health services at the 2013 Mental Health Day on the Hill was extremely important, and fortunately, local advocates said, their voices were actually heard this year.

“It was awesome,” said LouAnn Colvin, mental health advocate and member of the 5-county Local Advisory Council (LAC) on Adult Mental Health, serving Lincoln, Lyon, Murray, Redwood and Yellow Medicine counties. “It’s the best trip I’ve been to in the last three years. We got good responses from the people we talked to, and I came away from there feeling like we really did something.”

More than 600 people, including individuals living with mental illnesses, their families and providers, joined forces at the state Capitol for a Mental Health Rally Tuesday, hoping to urge legislators to protect funding for critical mental health services and supports and increase funding for programs and services, such as school-linked mental health services that have proven effective.

Since 2009, funding for mental health treatment and services has been reduced by $60 million in Minnesota.

“At this point in our economy, the mental health services are struggling financially, just as all other areas in the world,” Colvin said. “We need to treat people early, appropriately and with a focus on recovery. Community Services do save money, improve quality of life and save lives.”

Teri Herder-Blahnik, regional resource coordinator at the Mental Health Consumer/Survivor Network (CSN) of Minnesota, which is based in Marshall, agrees, pointing out that funding services to keep people healthy and out of hospitals is not only better for individuals, but that it is significantly cheaper.

“Hospitalization is extremely expensive,” she said. “Those of us who have had experience with mental health issues are not rich. We can’t afford lobbyists. It’s not popular, so sometimes it’s hard to get in the ear of our legislators. We have to rely on budgets, so it’s difficult.”

Mental Health Day on the Hill ends up being a good time to advocate and connect with those legislators. After attending a legislative briefing at the Christ Lutheran Church across from the Capitol, the 12 attendees from the Marshall area gathered with everyone in the Rotunda, where Gov. Mark Dayton and others spoke to the crowd.

The local group met with District 22A Rep. Joe Schomacker, R-Luverne.

“He asked us to tell our stories,” Colvin said. “We went around the room, each telling our mental illness journeys. He listened, commented and asked questions. He told us he was also concerned with the cuts the mental health system has gotten and agreed that it affects families’ lives and is more expensive in the long run.”

The session was very give and take, Colvin said.

“In other years, it felt like we were taking time away from their schedules,” she said. “That was not the case (Tuesday).”

A meeting with District 16 Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, was next. Colvin said Dahms had seemed “disinterested” last time area advocates addressed him, but that this year, he was more interested and compassionate about the plights of people with mental illness.

“After listening to our stories, he shared a story with us, and his assistant was there with us and vouched for his concern,” Colvin said. “I had a very negative impression the first time I did this two years ago, but I certainly saw a different man this year.”

While it appeared to have been a productive day, the battle, unfortunately, is an ongoing one. Stigma often keeps people from seeking treatment and so does the fear of having rights taken away.

“Treatment does make a difference and recovery is possible,” Colvin said. “Many people can’t or won’t seek treatment, though, because of the stigma surrounding mental illness. Community Services have made huge strides in both caring for victims of mental illness, including families, and stomping out the stigma.”

Herder-Blahnik has seen people shy away from treatment because of the shame involved even though with help, that person could lead a pretty normal life, she said.

“With knowledge, you can get better,” she said. “My challenges have shaped who I am. I’m a better person now. I’m more empathetic and knowledgeable about myself.”

Since she began at CSN in 2008, Herder-Blahnik has worked to change perspectives in the mental health sector, wholeheartedly believing in recovery, wellness and the benefits of peer support.

“We’ve been fed by professionals, who were taught to overmedicate,” Herder-Blahnik said. “But I’ve seen too many people stay healthy and make it through. We’re stronger than a lot of people thought. We’re getting our voices back slowly.”

There have been a variety of positive programs that have stemmed from the efforts of consumers in the Marshall area in the past few years. Vicki Bradley has led a depression support group through CSN for the past three years, which is now overlapping to a NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) group that is being started locally, while Joyce Williamson has coordinated “crafts and laughs.”

CSN served a total of 323 people in the region in 2012. Organizers also gave 37 presentations, traveled more than 5,000 miles and distributed nearly 4,000 pieces of written material. Consumers have also found the peer support Warmline to be effective.

“People know that whoever answers the phone is a peer, someone who has had a lived experience, someone who is not going to be judgmental and someone they can trust,” Herder-Blahnik said. “The calls are confidential, and no one is going to trace the call.”

While crisis lines are for emergencies, not being able to find someone to talk to can trigger a crisis for some people.

“There was a lady who used to call the crisis line every night,” Bradley said. “She doesn’t do it anymore because she calls the Warmline. I think that’s really phenomenal.”

Having peer support and the guidance of a Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) can make the difference when it comes to staying healthy. Advocacy is also a major factor, which is why Herder-Blahnik worked so hard to get the LAC reactivated in 2009.

“We’ve been very active and what we’re really proud of is that the big bulk of our membership includes consumers, people who have lived experience with mental health issues,” Herder-Blahnik said. “A lot of time you don’t see that on LAC.”

The whole idea of having a LAC, Herder-Blahnik said, is to get a good chunk of consumers and family members together to talk with people about unmet needs and report them.