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Mindy Greiling, former state legislator, shares story of son's mental health struggles during talk in Willmar

An even held by the Willmar chapter of the American Association of University Women included a panel of local mental health care providers and advocates and a chance for audience members to ask questions.

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Mindy Greiling, a former Minnesota legislator, wrote a book about her son's struggles with mental illness. She spoke about it at the Willmar Community Center on April 15, 2023.
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

WILLMAR β€” While her son wasn't diagnosed with a mental illness until he was a young adult, looking back, Mindy Greiling feels he was probably suffering for years before that.

"We chocked it up to just teenage years and drug use," Greiling told a large crowd at the Willmar Community Center on April 15.

But that wasn't the case. Instead Greiling's son Jim had schizophrenia and, for the past 20-plus years, he and the family have lived through the ups and downs of the illness and its impact. Greiling chose to share those experiences through the writing and publication of "Fix What You Can: Schizophrenia and a Lawmaker's Fight for Her Son" in 2020.

"I wrote 'Fix What You Can' to shed light on the mental health system, which is exactly what we are doing today," Greiling said. "I also wanted people to know they were not alone. It wasn't just my family β€” it wasn't just one or two other families; it is a lot of families."

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Author and former lawmaker Mindy Greiling has found herself to be an advocate for individuals and families dealing with mental illnesses, sitting on various boards and co-hosting a podcast. As a legislator, she started the first mental health caucus and worked to get mental health treatment more funding and attention.
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

Greiling was in town at the invitation of the Willmar branch of the American Association of University Women and other event sponsors to speak about her book and the experiences she and her family have had with mental illness. Following Greiling's presentation, there was a panel discussion with regional mental health treatment providers and advocates to talk about local resources and answer audience questions.

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"It is our hope this event will encourage candid and unashamed conversations about mental health and mental illness and that through these conversations change will happen," said Willmar AAUW co-president Jean Whitney.

Living the journey with her son

There were a lot of things Greiling wished she had known or had been told when Jim was diagnosed. Since there isn't a definitive test for many mental illnesses as there is for many other conditions, patients can be told they have one mental illness to start, only to be diagnosed again and again with something different. Jim was first told he had depression. Then he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and then schizophrenia, all within a year.

"I wish someone would have told me at the beginning that that was the normal thing," Greiling said.

Finding a treatment regime that worked was also a challenge. When they thought Jim had depression, he was put on anti-depressants. However those drugs can make the symptoms of other disorders β€” such as schizophrenia β€” even worse.

Jim ended up getting violent, and law enforcement was called. Jim was eventually put on an anti-psychotic drug called clozapine, and it worked really well. So well, in fact, that the family thought maybe Jim's issues were over.

But when he stopped taking the drug, everything went down hill. He ended up back in jail and then in-patient treatment, having psychotic episodes such as hearing and speaking to voices.

"We were deluded and not given what I call good information," Greiling said.

Large audience listening to Mindy Greiling at Willmar Community Center April 15, 2023.JPG
A large audience gathers to hear Mindy Greiling speak April 15, 2023, at the Willmar Community Center.
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

For nearly 15 years, Jim was on medications that didn't work as well as the clozapine, due to an inaccurate blood test that showed a blood disorder some patients get after taking the drug. During those years there were many challenges β€” including suicide attempts, drug use and a bad relationship.

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It wasn't until he went back on clozapine, after no sign of the blood disorder was found after additional testing, that things started to get better for Jim and, by extension, his family.

"Nothing is perfect I will say," Greiling said. "It is not a linear process, you go back and forth. We are mostly doing much better."

Educate and advocate

At the same time as she was trying to help handle her son's illness, Greiling was serving in the Minnesota House of Representatives, serving in what were then districts 54A and 54B around the city of Roseville. She served 20 years in the House, with mental health as one of her focus areas. She started the first bipartisan mental health caucus that helped bring the issue more out in the open and helped increase funding for mental health programs.

"That was the catalyst for lots of legislators working on mental illness. They hadn't really done that before," Greiling said.

After leaving the Legislature, Greiling continued being an advocate for mental illness and treatment. She has served on both the state and national boards for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is the past president of the Ramsey County NAMI group and is the co-host of the podcast Schizophrenia: Three Moms in the Trenches . She continues to work with her own legislators on mental health bills.

"The best thing for me, and for a lot of people, is advocating," Greiling said.

There are many ways people with mental illness, and their loved ones, can help themselves, Greiling said. They include educating oneself, with organizations such as NAMI being a great resource; telling your story in some way; and talking to others.

So many people and families, once they find out about the mental illness, hole up and lock themselves away, Greiling said, and don't reach out, because they are unaware how many people are dealing with the same issues.

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Greiling, now 20 years into her family's journey, still attends support group sessions.

"It is very therapeutic. For me it's the best thing I have done for myself," Greiling said.

Mindy Greiling signing books at the Willmar Community Center April 15 2023.JPG
Author Mindy Greiling signs copies of her book following her talk at the Willmar Community Center on April 15, 2023.
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

Mental health is health

Willmar and Kandiyohi County have a long history of providing mental health care and services, dating back to the days of the state hospital on what is now the MinnWest Technology Campus. That tradition of care continues in the present day, with multiple organizations, groups and facilities providing care, services and programming for individuals and families dealing with mental illness. Accessing that help is nothing to be ashamed of, nor is having a mental illness, the panel of mental health advocates and care providers said.

"I try to help people see mental health as a bigger picture in their overall health," said Ann Jones, a licensed psychologist with CentraCare. "Think of a pie of health. Mental health is a piece of the pie."

Probably one of the most important things someone can do for themselves, or if they see someone else struggling, is to reach out and get help. While asking for assistance and taking that first step can be scary, the sooner treatment begins, the sooner things will get better.

Mental illness has always had a stigma, and it is something advocates and care providers have been trying to push back againt. Talking about, and therefore normalizing, mental health and illness are probably the most important things anyone can do.

"It doesn't have to be bad. If you just don't feel like yourself, that is when it's time to talk to someone," said Kim Madsen, chief impact officer of Woodland Centers, a provider of mental health and substance use therapy programs. "Talk about it. We have to normalize it, because people are sitting and feeling like they are alone. The one thing each of us can do is we can start the talk."

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A panel discussion on mental health at the Willmar Community Center April 15 2023.JPG
A panel of mental health advocates and care providers hold a discussion about the subject April 15 at the Willmar Community Center following Mindy Greiling's talk.
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

Shelby Lindrud is a reporter with the West Central Tribune of Willmar. Her focus areas are arts and entertainment, agriculture, features writing and the Kandiyohi County Board.

She can be reached via email slindrud@wctrib.com or direct 320-214-4373.


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