WILLMAR - Kandiyohi County has a better array of mental health services than many rural Minnesota counties. But there aren’t enough of them, and it’s still a struggle for people to obtain mental health services close to home when they need them.

Timely access to help, especially for those in need of specialized mental health services, emerged at a local roundtable discussion Friday as one of the key gaps in the region.

And change must take place sooner rather than later, a mental health case worker told the 75-some people present.

“We need this to happen soon,” she said. “We have people out in the trenches trying to help people who are hurting.”

The listening session was one of several stakeholder meetings being held across the state this fall by the Minnesota Department of Human Services. State human services officials are looking for input on what’s already working well in Minnesota mental health care, where the gaps exist and what the priorities should be.

It has been about 10 years since the state last closely took a systemwide look at mental health, said Lucinda Jesson, Commissioner of Human Services.

Information that’s gathered from the meetings across the state will be used to create a four-year plan that can be shared with the governor and legislators, she said. It also will help shape a road map for comprehensive reform of the system.

“There’s a lot we do really well,” Jesson said. “We’ve made some real progress.”

But the concerns she heard in Willmar echoed much of what she has heard at similar meetings elsewhere across the state. A shortage of residential treatment options, especially for those with complex mental health needs or aggressive behavior. A lack of transportation to obtain services. Difficulty obtaining services close to home, particularly for children. A near-crisis in the supply of mental health professionals at all levels. A system that’s financially fragile.

In small-group discussions at the Willmar meeting, the participants - who included mental health, social services and health care professionals as well as mental health consumers - cataloged their own experiences within the system.

They spoke of frustrations in getting people connected with the right help, whether it was a child whose only residential treatment option was to go far from home and family to Duluth or Fargo, to families who couldn’t get help for someone until there was a crisis.

Service providers said there’s often a delay in discharging patients from residential treatment programs because of a shortage of community services that can support them once they return home. Meanwhile, patients in need of residential treatment can’t be admitted until a bed becomes available.

Case workers spoke of difficult transitions as people moved from one level of service to another, and as teens left the youth mental health system and entered the adult system.

There were calls for mental health care that reflects the needs and values of diverse cultures and for more opportunities for people with mental illness to find meaningful work.

Several in the audience said there’s still a stigma surrounding mental health that makes it difficult for people to ask for or receive help.

Funding was a key issue. Reimbursement for care isn’t adequate to cover costs, and a lack of funding leaves the system vulnerable, several people said.

“We need new money. We can’t keep shifting money,” one woman said.

Rep. Mary Sawatzky, D-Willmar, helped organize Friday’s session. She drew spontaneous applause when she told the audience, “I’m not trying to move the needle a little bit. I’m trying to move the needle a lot.”

Jesson called it “a wonderful conversation.”

As she travels around the state, it has been clear that no two regions are experiencing exactly the same issues, an indication that whatever blueprint is developed by the state cannot be a one-size-fits-all plan.

“There really are differences,” Jesson said. “I do think we need more regional approaches to this.”

But change won’t happen unless there’s commitment and support across Minnesota for improving the state’s mental health system, she said. “If we want to make this a priority, then we have to collectively agree this is a priority.”