West central Minn. mental health collaborative bucks trend with growth

WILLMAR -- In an era when mental health collaboratives are "shrinking and going away" the PACT for Families Collaborative, based in Willmar, is growing, said Debb Sheehan, executive director of the five-county organization.

WILLMAR -- In an era when mental health collaboratives are "shrinking and going away" the PACT for Families Collaborative, based in Willmar, is growing, said Debb Sheehan, executive director of the five-county organization.

In a presentation this week to the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners, Sheehan said PACT for Families is "bucking the trend" by continuing to work with families, social services, schools, public health, corrections and mental health agencies "in innovative ways" to reduce gaps in mental health services for children.

PACT for Families, which was created in 1993 as a four-county entity, was recently increased to include a fifth county.

That kind of growth is "unprecedented" in Minnesota at this time, Sheehan said.

In her presentation, Sheehan spoke about the "return on investment" by providing mental health services. While difficult to measure, she said statistics indicate that one in five American children has some kind of a mental health disorder.


Kids feel discouraged and as though they're not understood, she said, adding that one in eight adolescents with a mental disorder also has substance abuse issues.

There is a cost to intervention and treating mental illness, but doing nothing can cost more, said Sheehan.

Left untreated, that can have serious implications for the child, their family and society. Untreated youth have a high rate of suicide, medical problems, homelessness, unemployment, truancy and jail.

Yet, she said, about 79 percent of these children do not receive mental health care for issues like anxiety, which is most common in kids aged 9-17.

Based on reports of children being brought to emergency rooms for mental health-related problems, Sheehan said "we know there are issues out there."

Prevention has the "largest payoff," she said and is "vastly cheaper" than waiting until a child is older and issues intensify.

Jay Kieft, Kandiyhohi County Family Services director, said the county, which will contribute $13,707 to the collaborative this year as part of its membership, is "investing in a partnership."

Discussions about getting a return on mental health investments can be a "hard sell in tough times," Kieft said. "But it's where we need to be," he said. "There are societal gains beyond the dollars."


Programs like PACT for Families leverage taxpayers' dollars with funds from other sources, like grants. By working with different entities on a total mental health care plan for children that includes assessment and treatment, expensive duplication of services can be avoided.

Sheehan said a two-year grant PACT for Families received from the Minnesota Department of Human Services is helping to support mental health intervention for very young children, from birth to 5 years of age.

Grant money, however, is not as plentiful as it was in the past.

Sheehan said about $1 million of PACT for Families' $3.5 million budget is coming from a reserve fund with money saved over the years.

The collaborative currently serves individuals in Kandiyohi, Meeker, McLeod, Renville and Yellow Medicine counties and the Upper Sioux Community.

The County Board of Commissioners this week approved the contract with PACT for Families.

In other related action by the board this week:

- The commissioners agreed to submit a notice of termination with UCare, a Minnesota healthcare plan that provided programs for senior citizens under an agreement with the county. Because of low enrollment in the county, and because of UCare's complicated management rules, the county lost about $12,000 by coordinating care for those UCare cases. Affected residents will have other care management options with the county. The contract will end in June.


- An update was given on a new chemical assessment procedure for individuals in the county's criminal justice system. In the past, county employees conducted the assessments. Now the county contracts for the services with Woodland Centers and Project Turnabout -- area nonprofits that offer substance abuse treatment.

Carolyn Lange is a features writer at the West Central Tribune. She can be reached at or 320-894-9750
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