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CLC: Student-organized walk sheds light on mental health

Phi Theta Kappa students at Central Lakes College lead a walk through the campus to raise awareness for mental health Tuesday, Nov. 27. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch Video

More than 18 percent of adults in the U.S. suffer from mental illness.

Locally, mental illnesses affect more than 1 in 4 Crow Wing County adults.

Those statistics—collected by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and Crow Wing Energized, respectively—have drawn attention in the area and driven several Crow Wing County groups to stand up against the stigma of mental health.

Most recently, Phi Theta Kappa students at Central Lakes College organized a mental health awareness walk to let their peers know about resources available on campus for those suffering with mental health issues.

"I have been super impressed by the amount of work that they put in," PTK adviser Kate Porter said of her students. "They want to reduce the stigma of mental health and make sure people are aware of the resources on campus. We know, maybe, that there are counselors on campus, but we don't know who they are or what they look like."

Those counselors—Suzie Karsnia and Allison Medeck—joined the PTK students in addressing the large group assembled for the walk Tuesday, Nov. 27, inside CLC's Brainerd campus.

"We want to basically show support for mental health just by being here," PTK President Diana España told the group. "Mental illness is a circumstance in which we all, some way or another, have struggled with or know somebody who has struggled with. We're here to walk together to represent those struggles and the need to bring this topic forward."

Karsnia and Medeck urged students to come see them about any issues or problems they may be having, whether it's a mental health crisis or not.

"Know that if you're struggling with anything, any relationship issues, with anything to do with school, anything that just doesn't feel right or feels kind of funky, feel free to visit with me," Karsnia said.

"Come see us if life happens or maybe you're not sure what you need to do in a situation," Medeck added. "We can help you get in the right direction."

CLC President Hara Charlier and Vice President of of Academic and Student Affairs Joy Bodin joined in on the efforts, too.

"We want this to be a place where everyone understands that it's OK not to be OK, and there are a lot of wonderful people here to help you with whatever your struggles are," Charlier said.

After España and others addressed the group, speaking through a microphone for all those in the vicinity to hear, the group of about 50 participants marched through the CLC halls during the busy noon hour to spread their message.

España pointed to what seems an abundance of suicides in the Brainerd area in the last couple years—including both kids and adults—as a motive for her drive to spread mental health awareness.

"Raising awareness now and in the future is going to be very key to really understanding the roots of the issues and trying to get people to come speak about their problems sooner rather than lather," España said.

Other community efforts

Crow Wing County, the city of Brainerd, Essentia Health, Brainerd Public Schools and the Pequot Lakes School District are among other area groups who have joined in on the efforts to end the stigma of mental health.

"Our culture, if you will, is one where there's a lot of mental health challenges," Essentia Health-Central President Adam Rees said in a phone interview. "And the idea is that if we can create a grassroots movement with these multiple stakeholders that the likelihood of us starting to shift the culture in a more positive manner is greater than if we do it alone."

That grassroots movement started with United Way and Crow Wing Energized, a community health and wellness movement spearheaded by Essentia Health and Crow Wing County.

Rees said the United Way board decided to start hosting community meetings earlier this year to talk about mental health issues and see if the community could all rally around one specific approach.

Out of those meetings came Crow Wing County's version of Make It OK, a campaign started in Minnesota to reduce the stigma of mental illness. Rees said all of his employees went through two hours of Make It OK ambassador training this past spring and are now working through Crow Wing Energized to teach classes and share what they've learned about how to comfortably talk about mental illness and what to say to those suffering.

"The Make It OK platform allows you to have those words to say, 'Tell me more,' and to know what not to say," Kathy Sell, Essential Health marketing manager, said in a phone interview. "To say just, 'Well everyone has a bad day,' kind of undermines what they're trying to share with you."

As of September, Sell said 117 people within the community had gone through Make It OK ambassador training, making them fit to deliver the organization's message to others in the community.

"So we'll have people reaching out within their workplaces, service clubs they're involved in, churches, and deliver this message," she said. "So we're really expecting that we're going to have some great reaches around the community."

Those trained Make It OK ambassadors also include Cori Reynolds, community education director in the Brainerd School District; Tony Oltmann, Lutheran Social Service foster care coordinator, who works with the county on mental health programs; Mike O'Neil, Pequot Lakes Middle School principal; and several students and staff members at CLC.

Making mental illness OK

The goal of the campaign, the ambassadors agreed, is to normalize conversations about mental health and not ostracize those who struggle.

"Just like it's OK to have a physical illness, it's OK to have a mental illness, and it's OK to get help for it," Reynolds said during a phone interview. "It's not about laziness or stress or lack of willpower or weakness. It really can be a physical thing."

With several staff members in Brainerd School District having completed ambassador training, Reynolds said right now, they are focusing on staff members, making sure they're comfortable talking about mental health issues.

"As we go, we'll start layering in. Once it's OK for us, how do we make it OK for students, too?" she said.

Up in Pequot Lakes, O'Neil said mental health is often on his mind while working with middle school students, especially with the abundance of physical, emotional and hormonal changes students go through at that age.

"Learning that 1 in 5 ... individuals are dramatically influenced by mental health in their immediate family, that tells me that we should be doing something," O'Neil said over the phone, adding he believes the Make It OK training helped improve his work at school.

"It's helping to be a better principal working with my colleagues and acknowledging that those same statistics that impact our students impact our staff, too, and making sure that we are listening to people when they need a healthy vent," O'Neil said.

Back at CLC, speaker bureaus where students and staff can have informal discussions and share their own mental health stories are another way the college is working to end the stigma on campus.

"There's a lot of stress and pressure at this time in (students') lives," CLC counselor Karsnia said in September during National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. "Now they're more independent and they might live on their own, so they're not seen by their parents or someone daily to know, and so we want to make sure students know there's resources to ask for help and that what they're feeling is OK and normal."

For Bodin, vice president of academic and student affairs at CLC, the goal of all the mental health initiatives is simple: "It's about the success of our students and helping them move forward with their goals and dreams."

Mental health by the numbers

Every three years, Crow Wing Energized conducts a Crow Wing County community health survey. The most recent survey, mailed to 4,000 adults in fall 2017, garnered more than 1,000 responses, about a 27.1 percent response rate. The survey shows 28.2 percent of adults in Crow Wing County—more than 1 in 4—are impacted by mental illness. Depression and anxiety, it shows, are more common in the county than diabetes. The percentage of adults reporting a mental illness increased from 24.4 percent in 2014.

The 2016 national survey on drug use and health by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration that reported more than 18 percent of U.S. adults struggle with mental illness also reported the most prevalent ages for mental illness are 18-25, with 22.1 percent of adults in that age range reporting mental health issues. Of those affected, only 43.1 percent of adults sought treatment for mental illnesses in 2016, according to the study.

"Our goal, ultimately, with Make It OK," Sell said, "is to help people reach out for help before they get to crisis stage."

For more information on the Make It OK campaign, visit makeitok.org. A list of local resources for those struggling with mental illness can be found at https://crowwing.us/410/Mental-Health.

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