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Personal stories shaping mental health policy

A panel of legislators including Rep. Jeff Backer, Rep. Paul Anderson, Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen and Sen. Torrey Westrom attended the 7th annual “Day at Home” mental health advocacy event Friday, Oct. 6, at Broadway Ballroom in Alexandria. Jackie Anderson, a staff member from U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson’s office, was also on the panel. (Contributed)

A woman in the crowd, who only gave her first name, Jeanine, stood up and spoke to a panel of legislators.

"I am mentally ill," she told them. "How dedicated are you to seeing Americans live? We need meds. We need psychiatrists. We need community. How are you going to help me and the rest of us in this room?"

Jeanine was one of several who spoke during the "personal stories" portion of the 7th annual "Day at Home" mental health advocacy event Friday, Oct. 6, at Broadway Ballroom in Alexandria. More than 150 people attended the event, up from last year's attendance of 105.

The panel of legislators included Rep. Jeff Backer, Rep. Paul Anderson, Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen and Sen. Torrey Westrom. Jackie Anderson, a staff member from U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson's office, also was on the panel.

Jeanine told the legislators that although more help is needed, she is thankful for the help she has already received from mental health advocates in Douglas County.

Westrom said that mental health is a huge issue across the country and that stories such as Jeanine's are insightful and helpful. He also said that unfortunately, other issues such as roads and education are also at the forefront when it comes to the budget and needed funds.

"There is competition for those dollars," he said, adding that he understands the needs that are out there when it comes to mental health. He said it "boggles his mind" that it costs $1,400 a day to take care of one patient. He said there needs to be a better solution for that kind of expense.

Ingebrigtsen said he also understands the frustrations and that there isn't enough available beds or staff to take care of mentally ill patients.

"This issue is on the front burner in St. Paul," he said. "There is a need and with it comes a cost."

Anderson agreed that mental health is a huge topic and thanked those who shared their stories. He said he doesn't serve on the health and human services committee, but that each year he has attended this event, he has learned something new. Anderson said that although he serves on the ag committee, he understands there is a mental health need and that "folks need to get treatment" and that he was there to listen and learn.

Backer said he does serve on the health and human services committee and that although the committee has made some strides when it comes to the issue of mental health, he said there are still frustrations.

"I am always listening and learning," Backer told the crowd.

Another woman in the audience, who didn't provide her name, said she works with mental health patients and there is a shortage of workers in that field.

"We need the help," she told the legislative panel. "We need to get help. It's about them, our patients."

She said working 16-hour shifts is tiring and that she doesn't feel she can give her patients the care they deserve.

"Their lives are in our hands," she said. "Our job is to keep them safe and healthy. I understand you are doing your best, but we need more."

Funding for mental health, the availability of beds in mental health facilities, transportation, time spent in emergency rooms and availability of psychiatrists were other topics talked about during the Day at Home event.

The panel of legislators all agreed that there isn't a simple answer, but that they know that mental health issues need to be addressed and that there needs to be more funding.

The legislators thanked those who spoke and said the real life stories are what they bring back and share to advocate for more funding and services for mental health patients.

"Your stories are what we use. The real life situations. The real life stories," Westrom said. "It's because of these that our voices are loud and others take heed and make things happen."

Celeste Edenloff

Celeste is a reporter for the Alexandria Echo Press and has lived in the Alexandria Lakes Area since 1997. She first worked for the Echo Press as a reporter from 1999 to 2011, and returned in June 2016 to report on the community she calls home. She enjoys running and has participated in nearly 200 races with her husband, Al, covering the 5K, 10K, 10-mile and half-marathon distances.

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