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'We just have to make it OK to talk about suicide and mental health'

Albert Lea Tribune - 2/15/2024

Feb. 15—Panel meeting explores mental health worker shortage, proposes possible solutions

By Ayanna Eckblad

People of Freeborn County on Wednesday gathered at the Albert Lea fire station to discuss the shortage of mental health providers in the region and possible solutions for the problem.

The event was sponsored by the Albert Lea Healthcare Coalition and the Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce, and it was organized by Terry Gjersvik and Jean Eaton.

The meeting featured panelists Kay Drenth-Johannsen, a licensed drug and alcohol counselor for Independent Management Services; Marnie Werner, vice president of research at the Center for Rural Policy and Development; and Dr. Mark Kossman, director of the Freeborn County Mental Health Center. The moderator for the panel was the Rev. Charles Teixeira, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Albert Lea.

Those in attendance included people from area schools, public health and social services.

The event opened with introductions by Gjersvik and Eaton telling people what to expect as well as formally introducing the panel members.

The meeting covered a wide range of topics and began by addressing the shortage of mental health professionals in Freeborn County. According to Werner, research revealed that 82% of mental health providers live in metro areas of Minnesota. Additionally, there is a shortage of young professionals entering the mental health field.

Werner said only 7% of mental health professionals are 34 years of age or younger.

A contributing factor for this statistic is that mental health programs at colleges and universities lack the faculty to teach classes in this field. Because schools must maintain a certain student-to-faculty ratio to remain accredited, they are having to turn away students who would otherwise be qualified.

Additionally, it can be difficult for young graduates in the mental health field as they typically have one to two years of supervised training before they can become licensed professionals while still needing to pay off student loans and other living expenses.

One proposed remedy to this problem was for clubs or groups in Freeborn County to offer scholarships or grants for students in the mental health field. Another step forward is the introduction of Freeborn County students getting to attend Riverland Community College with free tuition.

Riverland has a program for human services for students interested in going into a career in counseling or therapy.

Keeping the younger generation informed was a major theme during the meeting. The panel discussed having mental health professionals going into schools periodically.

Drenth-Johannsen said there is a shortage of drug and alcohol counselors, leading to great job security for those who go into the field.

She proposed that letting students know about these opportunities when they are in middle school or high school could lead to higher numbers of mental health professionals going to school for that career and returning to the area.

Additionally, Drenth-Johanssen said that people who have recovered from substance abuse make excellent counselors but face a barrier with getting hired if they have a felony charge on their record.

Other issues discussed were low pay for mental health professionals in rural areas and as a career in general as these jobs are often the lowest-paid positions in the health care industry.

The shortage of mental health workers in Freeborn County can be seen with long wait times for people to receive initial mental health care. Kossman said counselors in the area have waiting lists ranging from weeks to as long as several months.

The emergence of telehealth counseling and therapy has helped alleviate the shortage of providers in Freeborn County. It has been especially helpful to students who now do not have to leave school grounds to have appointments.

However, Drenth-Johanssen said this type of care is not beneficial for drug and alcohol counseling because there is a lack of awareness and accountability when the client is not physically present with the mental health professional.

Teixeira added that pastors and other spiritual leaders are seeing the strain the shortage has caused as they find themselves in a position in which they need to help people who may need help on a clinical level.

Werner said it is crucial for parents to talk to their children about issues surrounding mental health to reduce the stigma surrounding the topic.

"We just have to make it OK to talk about suicide and mental health," she said.

Werner and Drenth-Johannsen complimented Freeborn County on having a proactive group of citizens who are willing to help make the community better.

Towards the end of the meeting, attendees split into small groups to discuss ways to help promote mental health awareness in the county. Some ideas brought up were promoting funding for mental health screenings and increased financial assistance to students going into mental health fields.

Drenth-Johannsen brought up the Yellow Line Project and the success she had seen it have in Blue Earth County.

The moderators informed people of resources that are available to them such as Coffee Connections at the courthouse and Drenth-Johanssen's office, Celebrate Recovery at First Presbyterian Church and the Next Step Clubhouse.

"As a county, we look for opportunities to go out into the community," Kossman said. "That's an emphasis for us."

The meeting closed with a prayer from Teixeira.

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