The issue of mental health is very near and dear to Angie Schmitz of Alexandria.

Her father struggled with mental illness much of his life and was a huge advocate for policy change, rights and services for individuals with mental health issues and developmental disabilities.

Schmitz, who has worked in human service positions much of her life, which includes working with individuals with mental health diagnosis, has other family members that face the challenges of mental illness each and every day.

It was after losing one of her family members to death by suicide that Schmitz decided she wanted to play a bigger role when it comes to state policies, programs and services. She ended up applying for a seat on the State Advisory Council on Mental Health.

And about a month ago, she found out she made the cut and was appointed by Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan to sit on that council. She will serve on it for four years. Her first meeting will be sometime in August.

“My role on the council will provide me the opportunity to share information and concerns regarding mental health services and make recommendations to improve these services,” said Schmitz. “I specifically would like to address the shortage of professionals in Greater Minnesota and the high cost of accessing them. I hope to be a voice for all those with family members with a mental illness and for those who have lost loved ones to death by suicide.”

Schmitz said she went through a complete application process in which she needed to provide a resume, letters of reference as well as explain her interest in serving on the council.

And although the positions for open seats are publicly posted, Schmitz said she became aware of the opportunity at a training through the Minnesota Department of Human Services when she assisted in training mental health professionals on how to work with families with children who had severe profound mental illness.

Schmitz works as a youth services coordinator for Rural Minnesota Concentrated Employment Program, which she said inspires her desire to provide a voice for mental health services in Greater Minnesota.

She said that although she works with young adults with a wide range of needs, many either have mental health diagnosis themselves or have family members that do. She hopes to share the impact mental health can have on educational and employment goals, the impact that support and success in education and employment can have on mental health illness with the hope that some of the challenges can be better understood.

During COVID-19, Schmitz said mental health services have been difficult for many to access. In addition, she said the isolation is definitely making an impact on people, whether or not they have been diagnosed with mental health issues. Even before the pandemic, Schmitz said mental health services had already begun to be implemented and offered through tele-health. Because of the shortage of professionals, she believes the trend of tele-health will continue.

However, tele-health has its share of challenges, she said, including client access to technology that would support having a virtual meeting, as well as the personal connection, which may be lost through appointments via a screen.

“The challenges of mental illness have not really changed very much since I remember my father talking about them when I was growing up,” said Schmitz. “The cost of mental health services, the availability of qualified professionals to deliver those services and the stigma related to mental health continue to be barriers.”

She also believes that the complexity of the services system itself is often difficult to understand and access, especially during a mental health crisis.

Schmitz hopes that by having a seat on the council, she will have not only an opportunity to address these needs, but to be another voice advocating for those with mental health issues.

The State Advisory Council on Mental Health is charged with making recommendations to the governor, Legislature and state departments on mental health policies, programs and services. It is made up of a variety of people including consumers, county commissioners, social service director, family members, physicians, therapists, parents, psychiatrist, psychologist, registered nurse and more.