A mental health overhaul is underway in rural Minnesota – Duluth News Tribune

WADENA, Minn. – It is hoped that the move to more proactive programming will reverse the trend of mental health issues plaguing several rural counties in central Minnesota.

Wadena County Director of Human Services, Jennifer Westrum, offered several items to Wadena County Commissioners on August 16, all committed to being proactive rather than reactive to situations that continue to arise with mental health.

Top of the list was the recent decision to hire a mental health coordinator who will work in Wadena, Crow Wing, Morrison and Todd counties to help identify initiatives to lift the region out of this crisis. Based on the Greater State of Mind 2021 project assembled by the 5+ Region Mental Health Initiative, this is a needed position that will focus on expanding the availability of mental health resources for residents. The coordinator will be an employee of Sourcewell and will start in late 2022 or early 2023.

Another is the work done by Wadena County Social Service staff, Madi Lausten and Carlie Reading, for at-risk youth in the county. They secured funding for the program through the Family Services Collaborative to deliver a five-week youth-focused life skills program. There were nine young people from across the county who participated in the initial programming and about five who were able to attend regularly. Lausten said part of it has to do with transportation.

The LIFE 101 program provides education and support to at-risk youth while simultaneously utilizing local resources and connecting youth with community partners. The LIFE 101 program aims to help young people develop independent living skills, which is an evidence-based intervention supported by national and local child welfare initiatives. Providing young people with independent living skills helps promote success in adulthood and prepares them for life’s challenges, thereby reducing the likelihood that young people will encounter difficulties in the future. The hope is that young people will need less access to ‘rescue services’ in the future, as well as learning to navigate the adult world more effectively.

Jennifer Westrum, director of social services for Wadena County. Photo submitted

“Wadena County Social Services Child Protection and Child Mental Health Teams noticed the need for a local Independent Living Skills (ILS) program for the teens we serve in our area,” according to documents shared by Westrum. “Currently, the closest available ILS program is housed in Brainerd, Minnesota, which is a transportation and logistical barrier for many of the families we serve. By hosting an ILS program in our county, we hope to reach more young people who otherwise might not have the same opportunities to learn independent life skills that will serve them well into adulthood.

The program aims to help young people learn how to build healthy relationships, adopt a healthy lifestyle, learn to protect themselves and successfully navigate the nuances of the adult world. This program has funding for three additional rounds and can take up to 16 per round.

Lack of staff, lack of beds

One area that has no immediate remedy is the county paying for the use of a bed at a child and adolescent behavioral health hospital when the patient does not meet the criteria for the hospital’s funding. State pays for his stay there. Normally, the person would be moved to a site requiring less acute services at a much lower cost. But staffing shortages have limited bed availability.

“There just aren’t any beds to get this kid out of,” Westrum said.

In this situation, the county ran into issues where the costs start accumulating very quickly when the bed costs more than $2,000 a day for an individual to stay in. Westrum said several local staff and one of the cities have undertaken a nationwide search for beds in 35 states that could accommodate this person, keeping in mind that they need to be visited regularly by county staff, they don’t therefore may not be too far out of reach or it may create another excessive cost. No beds could be found.

Before the pandemic, it was difficult to transfer residents from one level of care to another. Since the start of the pandemic, it has become almost impossible to find a suitable place to hang out. This is due to either a staff shortage or an absence of staff due to illness.

In these cases, the patient no longer needs the same level of acute care that put them to bed, but they still need somewhere to go before being sent home.

“I think we did everything in our power to get them to a lower level of care,” Westrum said. “Once moved into a group home, the county would no longer pay for it.”

At the time of the encounter, the person had been receiving care for 20 days at the rate of approximately $2,400 per day. This is a cost charged to Wadena County, and a cost that no one budgets or can plan for.
What would help reduce the need for these types of circumstances, according to the leaders, is more work done in the homes of the mentally ill.

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