Essentia Health - St. Joseph's enlists community to reduce mental health stigma

September 15, 2019

Campaign calls upon people to 'Make It OK'


A significant portion of the population experiences mental illness, but it is common for people to forego or delay seeking treatment because of societal stigma. Reducing the stigma of mental illness within a community could result in more people being willing to seek mental health care and doing so before they are in crisis.

Essentia Health class
School district employees in Brainerd, Minn., attend a Make It OK training session about a year ago. The training is part of a broad campaign by Essentia Health and its St. Joseph's Medical Center of Brainerd aimed at reducing mental health stigma.

That is the concept behind a mental health campaign that Brainerd, Minn.-based Essentia Health and its St. Joseph's Medical Center launched last year.

Through "Make It OK," the health care organizations and a coalition of community partners are delivering presentations that let people know that mental illness is common — one in five U.S. adults experience mental illness every year — and treatable. The coalition members and campaign "ambassadors" present this message and provide related resources in their own workplaces; to school staff and parents of students in the local school district; and to community members at churches, businesses and organizations throughout Brainerd and surrounding communities. The resources include a tip sheet on what to do to help people at various levels of mental health crisis, and information on local organizations that can assist people with mental illness.

Kathy Sell, Essentia Health marketing and communications manager, estimates that more than 2,600 people have attended a Make It OK presentation.

Sell, who helped to establish and launch the program — and who is herself an ambassador — says, "Every time I give the Make It OK presentation, someone shares a deeply personal story from years ago about a family member who died by suicide, and they'll share that they've never talked about it.

"Stigma runs deep," she says. "The more we can reduce stigma, the more we can help people seek help earlier, and truly impact lives."

Pervasive problem
According to information from St. Joseph's, more than 25 percent of adults in Crow Wing County, Minn., have been diagnosed with a mental illness at some point in their lives. Crow Wing has a population of about 62,500; and its county seat Brainerd, a population of nearly 13,600.

Sell says the pervasiveness of mental health conditions has led to continually increasing numbers of people coming to St. Joseph's emergency department in mental health crisis. The facility recently invested $1 million to renovate its emergency department to make it safer and more accessible to people in mental health crisis. The hospital has an inpatient mental health unit, the Grace Unit, for people in crisis.

When it set out to actively engage the community to reduce suicides and avert mental health crisis through prevention and early treatment, the hospital turned to its mental health task force to vet ideas. Among the task force's members are former Grace Unit patients and mental health care clinicians, including a psychiatrist and nursing director and others.

That task force recommended the Make It OK campaign, which was being used elsewhere in Minnesota, to combat the stigma around mental illness. The National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota; HealthPartners, a Bloomington, Minn.-based nonprofit insurance and health care provider; the Mayo Clinic Health System; as well as other hospitals, foundations, nonprofit service organizations and a media partner developed the educational presentation and a tool kit of resources. That tool kit includes flyers, brochures, a guide on what to say to someone who is mentally ill and other items.

All the Make It OK materials are free for use.

Brainerd rollout
For the Brainerd implementation, St. Joseph's worked with Crow Wing Energized, a nonprofit organization created, supported and partly funded by Essentia to improve health and wellness in the county. Sixty churches, community groups, business groups, cities, nonprofit organizations, health care providers, schools and businesses are partners of Crow Wing Energized. Sell is on the organization's steering committee.

St. Joseph's and Crow Wing Energized launched Make It OK in spring 2018, through a mandatory education event for the 1,300 providers and staff of St. Joseph's and its clinics. St. Joseph's and Crow Wing have since maintained the momentum with hospital and clinic employees by publishing articles in the internal newsletter.

Since the summer of 2018, St. Joseph's and Crow Wing Energized have trained more than 200 people as Make It OK ambassadors. Ambassadors commit to delivering at least two presentations annually. Last summer, St. Joseph's and Crow Wing Energized also delivered Make It OK to a back-to-school meeting of the 900 staff of Brainerd Public Schools. The school district has followed up with presentations by its own ambassadors, to parents, child care staff and others.

How to help
The interactive Make It OK presentation lasts about two hours. It includes a PowerPoint, videos, opinion quizzes, discussion and opportunities to practice what is learned. The presentation explains what stigma is, the harm of stigma, common mental health illnesses and their symptoms, tips on how to interact with people with mental illness, ideas of what to say and what not to say to them, statistics on mental illness and much information on how to help people with such conditions. A theme of the presentation is that mental health conditions are actually common and should be approached like any other health condition — without judgment.

Sue Hilgart is a former program manager with the Rural Minnesota Concentrated Employment Program, who was a Make It OK ambassador before she moved out of the area this year. She says she felt compelled to become part of the solution after a rash of suicides in the Brainerd area. In a blow for the small community, three youths and several adults had taken their own lives within about a 12-month period.

"I wanted to be part of any action that would help make a difference," Hilgart says. In her view, Make It OK can make a difference by encouraging community members to recognize and support those struggling with mental illness. "This program has the ability to open eyes, open up dialogue and raise awareness of mental illness. The program can change lives, change minds, change outcomes," she says.

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