GRANITE FALLS — Mental health is emerging as a top health care priority for area counties.

It’s a statewide concern, but it’s also showing up as a high priority as Countryside Public Health surveys health care providers, elected officials and members of the public in the counties it serves in the Upper Minnesota River Valley area.

Ashley Johnson, representing the Statewide Health Improvement Partnership for Countryside Health, told the Yellow Medicine County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday that the agency is currently gathering public input to set its priorities for 2020 and beyond.

“Mental health is really high in our priorities in trying to look at strategies,” said Johnson during a discussion with the commissioners.

Countryside Health has identified 10 health care areas to address, and is asking the people it serves to prioritize them.

Five health care issues have consistently been cited as priorities in the process, she said. They include mental health; adverse childhood experiences; parenting family systems and home structure; substance abuse including alcohol, tobacco and illicit drugs; and rural health for farmers and rural people.

The other issues include infectious diseases; obesity; neighborhood environment and access to housing, transportation and health food; dental health; and uninsured and under-insured access to care.

Commissioner Ron Antony noted that “rural health” in the list of five largely referred to mental health issues as well, whether it pertains to farmers and the stresses they are experiencing this year or employees in agricultural-related industries. Adverse childhood experiences and parenting family systems include mental health components as well, it was noted during discussions.

Johnson said Countryside purposely separated “rural health” as a category of its own in an attempt to learn just how big of an issue it is in the rural counties. The agency serves Big Stone, Chippewa, Lac qui Parle, Swift and Yellow Medicine counties.

The agency currently has a staff member working on making mental health resources available to farmers. Johnson said feedback to the initiative is mixed, with some wanting the resources and others not interested.

“For the most part, we’re trying to get resources out there so they know what’s available and what’s not,” she said.

Johnson said Countryside is certain to make mental health a priority, but here's the challenge: The range of mental health care needs is big. She asked: Do you focus on children? On adults?

She pointed out that a recent survey of students showed high numbers of teenage girls with depression and other mental health conditions. The last survey of health needs in the region led Countryside Public Health to make available to schools in the five counties a preventative health nurse.

Johnson said the agency hopes to have the health care priorities identified and strategies to meet them in place in March 2020.

In a related matter, the commissioners also met with Jennifer Lundberg, representing the Local Adult Mental Health Advisory Council. It serves to find ways to improve mental health services in Yellow Medicine, Lincoln, Lyon, Murray, Redwood and Pipestone counties.

She said the Minnesota Department of Human Services is completing an analysis of the gaps in services throughout the state. Lundberg said the gaps in rural areas tend to be the availability of transportation to access services, as well as the wait times to see providers.