Editor’s note: The following story was written by Philip Drown of Alexandria for the Echo Press.

“What does depression feel like? It feels dark. It feels hopeless. It’s like walking through cement,” said Annie Meehan, who went on to describe how her brother chose to end his life many years ago because of unexpressed and untreated depression.

According to Meehan, the family never talked openly about what happened. As a result, she said her brother’s son “lived in silence and shame about his own depression” and years later made the same decision to end his life.

“Breaking those cycles comes from saying that depression is real,” Meehan said, and by allowing people the freedom to talk about what pains or stresses are going on inside of them.

Author and keynote speaker Annie Meehan spoke to a crowd of 90 about personal transformation and overcoming a lifetime of challenges and tragedy.
Contributed photo
Author and keynote speaker Annie Meehan spoke to a crowd of 90 about personal transformation and overcoming a lifetime of challenges and tragedy. Contributed photo

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Meehan, an award-winning author and nationally recognized motivational speaker, was one of 90 people who gathered at the Broadway Ballroom Event Center in Alexandria on Friday, Oct. 8 to discuss issues surrounding mental health services in Minnesota and in the five-county region of Douglas, Grant, Pope, Stevens, and Traverse.

Included in the discussion were three Minnesota state legislators Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, and Rep. Jeff Backer, R-Browns Valley. They 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 “10th Annual Day at Home in Region 4” event was sponsored by the Region 4 South Adult Mental Health Consortium. The annual gathering 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 event also provides a forum to educate participants on how to effectively interact with their legislators.

Meehan, the keynote speaker at the event, has spent a lifetime overcoming personal challenges and has turned her own journey into an opportunity to help strengthen and encourage others. Meehan’s advice to anyone who is concerned that a friend or loved one may be experiencing serious depression is to first reassure the person that it is okay to struggle and then invite them to talk about it.

“Don’t go into rescue mode,” she said. “Ask detailed, intentional questions and let them talk about it because it’s inside of them. The more that we are vulnerable and open and ask the right questions, it gives them permission to talk.”

Mental health crisis response services available

One of the issues that came to the forefront of the conversation was the need to increase public awareness of state-funded resources that are available to assist people experiencing a mental health crisis and how to access them.

“Minnesota is one of the only states that has the entire state covered by mobile crisis teams,” said session moderator Sue Abderholden. According to Abderholden, who is also the Executive Director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota, these teams are available 24/7 in every county to respond to adults and children experiencing a mental health crisis.

There are 34 crisis teams throughout the state and each county’s team is accessible by a mental health crisis hotline. Rep. Franson prompted everyone in the gathering to add the Region 4 South crisis hotline, which covers Douglas Grant, Pope, Stevens and Traverse counties, to their phones as she read off the number. The crisis hotline is (701) 364-0431.

“We know the crisis teams work,” Abderholden said, “but we need to put more funding into them and find people to staff them.” Abderholden said that workforce shortages and underfunding have created challenges for rural crisis teams such as Region 4 South, where fewer staff are stretched thin covering larger areas.

“There are priorities where dollars are spent,” said Sen. Ingebrigtsen, “and some politicians don’t think that mental health is an issue. But I’ll tell you that it has come from the back burner to the front burner. It has been dealt with fairly well in recent years and I think it’s going to continue. But it’s going to take information, it’s going to take training and it’s going to take you contacting your legislators.”

Personal stories of hope

Among the several men and women who shared their personal mental health stories and experiences with the legislators was David Pearson of Starbuck. Pearson said he has experienced depression most of his life, some of it beginning in childhood as a result of abuse.

“I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t matter much anymore, those things from the past,“ Pearson said. “What matters is what you do today.”

David Pearson shares his personal story of overcoming depression.
Contributed photo
David Pearson shares his personal story of overcoming depression. Contributed photo

Pearson said that after years of experiencing hospitalization and receiving various mental health services, he spent a year studying books on self-help, the neuro-plasticity of the brain and how people can re-wire their brains and build new pathways to overcome depression.

“It helped me greatly,” he said. “I’m not depressed anymore. I got rid of my toxic thoughts and toxic people in my life.”

In the past year both his 33-year old son and his fiancé passed away. Pearson said he survived his situation by controlling the way he thinks. “The old Dave would have done some of the things talked about here today..suicide and things like that. But the new Dave is not like that. I will never hurt myself again. I did so much better through this by the way I think.”

Rep. Backer thanked all of the participants for sharing their stories. “It opens up our hearts and allows us to learn more,” he said.

“It’s not easy to be vulnerable in front of a group of people,” said Rep. Franson. “We appreciate those stories and we take those stories back to the legislature as we are looking at funding and legislative ideas.”

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