Chris Uchello was completing his law degree at the University of Mississippi when complications from diabetes brought him to Minnesota to receive care at the Mayo Clinic. After months of treatment, he became depressed, began to struggle and eventually became homeless.

"When I was on the streets of Minneapolis, I carried two things with me," he said. "I carried a duffel bag of my clothes and that big law degree that I earned, because I didn't want to forget about it and needed to know that I could do this someday."

Uchello received the help of Minnesota's mental health services and is working today as a legislative liaison with Wellness in the Woods, a non-profit mental health advocacy group.

"Here just a few years later I am working in this field, intent on becoming an attorney and working with people who have lived experiences of mental health," Uchello said.

He was one of the 125 people who gathered at the Broadway Ballroom Event Center in Alexandria last Thursday to discuss issues surrounding mental health services in Minnesota and in the five-county region.

Included in the discussion were five Minnesota state legislators and three candidates running for House seats, who spent the morning discussing the issues with attendees and listening to the personal stories of individuals whose lives have been affected, in some way, by mental illness.

The 8th annual Day at Home in Region 4 event was sponsored by the Region 4 South Adult Mental Health Consortium. It is designed to bring legislators and their constituents together to engage in constructive dialogue on mental health issues, as well as put a personal face on mental illness in the region.

The Region 4 South AMHC is one of 15 projects statewide involved in improvings ways to deliver mental health services within local communities. Legislation passed in 1995 by the Minnesota Legislature authorized pilot projects intended to better deliver mental health services for adults with serious and persistent mental illness.

Closer access

Changes include ensuring that people experiencing symptoms of mental illness have access to help and services earlier and closer to home, reducing the negative effect of those symptoms and encouraging recovery.

"There are many adults with serious mental illness who end up homeless or who end up in the criminal justice system who cannot access care when they need it," said Sue Abderholden, the session moderator who is also executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Abderholden asked the panel of legislators about ways they would like to see the mental health system improved to ensure people get the treatment they need.

"We need to make sure we've got more crisis bed space available in local communities," said Minnesota Sen. Torrey Westrom (R-Elbow Lake). When a person is in crisis, taking a trip from their home to a Twin Cities center is not helpful to their situation, he said.

"So what we can do is make community-based bed spaces available," Westrom said. "But ultimately we need to find early interventions so that we do not get to the crisis state, because there are likely indicators before that."

State Rep. Jeff Backer (R-Browns Valley) would like to see critical care hospitals play a stronger role in helping people get mental health care closer to home.

"I'm a big believer in regional centers," Backer said. "We have 76 critical care hospitals in Minnesota. These are facilities that we could do more regional mental health care to help adults and children."

Reaching children

Another central topic of discussion involved directing funds toward intervening earlier in the lives of children experiencing mental illness and help them become successful adults who are not disabled by it.

"Half of all mental illnesses emerge by the age of 14, and 75 percent by the age of 24," said Abderholden. "If we don't focus on children's mental health services, in some ways we've waited too long."

Abderholden said that, as with any health care condition, early identification and treatment yields the best outcome.

State Rep. Jim Newberger (R-Becker), a 30-year veteran paramedic, said that 10 to 15 percent of paramedics' calls are mental health related, but the increase in mental health incidents involving children was disconcerting.

"The biggest change I have seen over the past 10 years is the marked increase in calls to schools where we pick up kids as young as five who are having mental health crisis issues," Newberger said. "It is very disturbing to pick up a 5-year-old out of a kindergarten class who has torn the room apart because they are having an issue, and to take this child by ambulance to a pediatric mental health center.

"Folks, we gotta do something about this," he said.

State Rep. Mary Franson (R-Alexandria) emphasized the importance of training professionals who work with children, from child care providers to teachers in the school system, in helping kids deal with Adverse Childhood Experiences. ACEs are stressful or traumatic events including abuse and neglect that can affect emotional and mental health throughout a lifetime.

"Many of these children are acting out for some reason," Franson said. "If the provider or teacher understands the background of that story, they can help navigate that child through life without giving them the label of a 'naughty child,' and help find them the services they need so that they can go to school and get educated."

"We had $50 million in the spending bill last spring that goes to schools beneath the umbrella of school safety," said state Rep. Paul Anderson (R-Starbuck). "A lot of that has to do with guidance for kids."

Citing strong support for that bill, Anderson said he expects it to come back again in the next session with additional funding for ACEs training for schools.

"The timing is right to increase funding for folks to work in the area of helping students with counselors and things like that," Anderson said.

For more information about mental health issues in this region or to see video from the event, visit www.r4sconversations.org or www.reallifeconversations.com