WILLMAR — When an individual suffering from a mental health condition finally asks for professional help, they might have been suffering in silence for years. So, the last thing Woodland Centers in Willmar wants to do is make that person wait another several weeks before finally being evaluated for treatment.

"The window of opportunity can close very quickly if we don't help people get the services they need when they need them," said Dr. Ashley Kjos, CEO of Woodland Centers.

In an attempt to get treatment started sooner, Woodland Centers offers same-day appointments for initial evaluations, a huge improvement over the three to six weeks it could sometimes take for an open appointment slot.

"This was something we knew we need to do," Kjos said.

Approximately two years ago, Woodland Centers applied for Community Clinic Grant through the Minnesota Department of Health. The local mental health care provider was awarded the grant and able to partner with MTM Services, who for more than a year went over Woodland Center's processes and scheduling to improve access to care.

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"For MTM it was how quickly can we get your consumers in your door and accessing the care they need," Kjos said. "It was this huge process to really look at all of our systems."

Through the work with MTM, Woodland Centers worked on its scheduling process and implemented a new system. Now, Monday through Friday, there is a block of time set aside only for assessments for new consumers.

"We tell them to call right away in the morning, so we have open times," Kjos said. "We will get you scheduled that day."

One of the benefits of the new system it has cut back on the number of appointment no-shows.

"That is nice for staff to know, that these people will likely be here," Kjos said.

Over the past 18 months Woodland Centers has seen a jump in the number of initial assessments as more people reach out for help during the pandemic. Depression and anxiety disorders have risen as people deal with the fallout within themselves, in their families and in their coworkers.

"There has been an increase in the need for mental health services," Kjos said.

If there is a silver lining to the pandemic, Kjos said it is the change of attitude toward mental health.

"We are having more exposure, and reducing the stigma, about what mental health is, and mental wellness," Kjos said.

The pandemic has also increased the use of telehealth, which has become a benefit for Woodland Centers. Kjos said much of the service provided can be done through telehealth, reducing how much time a client needs to take out of a day to be provided treatment. It doesn't need to impede on a person's daily life.

"It opened up our capacity to serve more people across our seven-county area," Kjos said. "It really has opened the door for people to see these services as much more accessible, much more able to do them wherever you are and work around our busy lives."

Woodland Centers has been operating under its new same-day appointment process for about a year and Kjos is happy with how well it has gone. People can now get the help they need when they need it.

"Sometimes even just having someone to talk to, to hear you and understand and empathize with your situation, sometimes that is all some people really need," Kjos said. "And if we can offer that same day, it gives people that sense of relief. They may never need another service but they know where to go now."