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Gaps remain in Minn.'s mental health care services

WILLMAR -- When the Willmar Regional Treatment Center closed its doors in 2008, the plan was to have a collection of regional facilities and local services to meet the needs of adults with mental illness.

There has been a problem with that plan from the beginning.

The Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners this week heard a report on the continued gap in mental health care services for the "hard-to-serve" population that requires hospitalization as well as longer-term residential care.

The lack of appropriate and available care for clients that have acute mental health needs is creating "major challenges" for county case workers and the clients they serve, said Family Services Supervisor Corrine Torkelson.

"There's a lack of bed capacity to meet the variety of needs," said Torkelson.

Karen Tusha-Molin, a county mental health social worker, relayed the story of a county client who has continued to bounce from hospitals to step-down facilities and back again to hospitals through a series of court-ordered civil commitment procedures, suicidal actions, drug overdoses and insurance coverage that limits hospitalization.

There hasn't been enough space in the right facility at the right time, Tusha-Molin said, explaining the frustrating seesaw the client has been on since 2009.

The only state-operated acute mental health hospital is in Anoka, where there's a waiting list of 118, Torkelson said.

Some individuals with acute mental illness also commit crimes and end up in jails, which has put stress on county jails and county public health departments that try to provide care.

Counties are "ramping up" efforts to bring mental health professionals into the jail to provide treatment, said Ann Stehn, who currently oversees the county's public health and family services departments.

But jail is not a therapeutic setting for an individual with acute mental illness, Stehn said.

"That's not what our jails are intended to do," she said, but there often is "no other place for them to go."

Stehn said the deinstitutionalizing of Willmar Regional Treatment Center has had positive results for most of the former clients, including those with developmental disabilities that had previously been served there.

But she said there is a persistent lack of beds for the small segment of the population with acute mental illness.

Until now, Torkelson said the Minnesota Department of Human Services has not been at the table to help find a solution for serving this population. A multi-county task force has been studying the issue and now the state has indicated a willingness to participate in the discussion, she said.

This recent acknowledgement by the state is giving the county some hope that the system can be changed to meet actual needs.

"At least the state is talking," said Commissioner Harlan Madsen, adding that something needs to be done to fix the "gaping chasm" that is allowing people who "don't fit into the mold" to fall through the cracks.

Willmar currently has a 16-bed mental health facility that initially started out as a secure hospital for adults with acute mental illness.

But since it opened about five years ago, the Willmar facility has undergone several name changes and been given a new mission by the state to serve clients with less severe mental illness. Its current sub-acute care program helps clients transition from a hospital setting to the community.

The facility reportedly is functioning at close to capacity.

Kandiyohi County Board Chairman Richard Larson said finding the right the use for the 16-bed facility is an important part in meeting the needs in the mental health continuum of care.

Last year the Legislature approved funding to keep the Willmar facility open through March of this year. New legislation was introduced last month to continue funding for another 15 months.


Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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