When it comes to mental health, Natalie Matthewson, MA, LPC, knows getting providers, consumers, and stakeholders to the table to have an open, honest conversation is the first step in collaboratively finding solutions to the challenges faced. Matthewson is the Region 7E Adult Mental Health Initiatives (AMHI) Planner. Her position, contracted through Resource Training and Solutions, assists with mental health oversight, funding, organization of events, and training within a five-county region that includes Chisago, Isanti, Kanabec, Mille Lacs, and Pine Counties.
The first step to transforming care
Individuals with mental illness often face significant obstacles as they attempt to get help. The Minnesota Department of Human Services reports that the top needs for adults with mental illness in Region 7E includes access to crisis placement services, housing, and transportation. For example, someone may be able to schedule a needed appointment at a care provider but not have a way to travel to their appointment because they live in a remote location without transportation options. In addition, unique regional gaps in critical services may be barriers to care.
Awareness of the service gaps and frank conversations about barriers to care is the first step to finding solutions to the mental health issues in the central Minnesota system. Matthewson needed to get several stakeholders to connect for these conversations to happen. She reached out to the Barbara Schneider Foundation (BSF) for help since she had previously worked with the organization on Crisis Intervention Training. The foundation strives to help through education efforts and positive de-escalation training for public safety, mental health, and community advocacy sectors within Minnesota. BSF’s approach often includes facilitated, inquiry-based community conversations, and Matthewson appreciated that BSF’s work includes naming what is going well within a system as well as identifying what needs to change.
Four days centered on positivity and change
BSF helped Matthewson create a diverse planning team to organize a four-part conversation funded and hosted by Region 7E AMHI. County and state workers, housing and employment providers, health systems representatives, faith leaders, crisis workers, law enforcement, educational leaders, and community mental health consumers were invited to participate. The conversations occurred in October, November, and December in various locations throughout the region. LeMoine LaPointe and Mark Anderson from the Barbara Schneider Foundation acted as conversation facilitators, and helped the planners select an “overall change” agenda that included themed conversation days. The facilitators utilized a community conversation cycle based on an indigenized model incorporating what is known as Appreciative Inquiry dialogue. This method identifies what gives life to human systems and assumes that transformational conversations are based in a relational process.
Discovery conversations challenged participants to recount peak experiences of the community at its best and helped illuminate the foundational strengths of the community’s mental health system. Dream conversations invited attendees to imagine forces that could contribute to the system’s health in the future. Design conversations bridged the community’s foundational strengths to the community’s vision for the future and gave participants a picture of how the community’s possibilities for the future could be formed and fully effective. Destiny conversations, at the conclusion of the series, gave participants an opportunity to plan the next steps for program implementation. Each conversation closed with a reflection exercise where participants shared what stood out for them on that day.
More than 225 people attended the conversations. Aliina Knickerbocker, Care Connector in the Mora and Kanabec County area and one of the planners, says this of the conversations, “People seemed to feel there was hope in moving forward toward change. The conversations helped everyone feel they could just talk freely in a safe space about their personal experience. Everyone left each of the conversations feeling uplifted.”
Valuable discourse inspires problem solving
According to Matthewson, the community conversations advanced mental health initiatives for the region because attendees could envision new opportunities to improve services and intiatives. She reports that participants were able to identify ways to bring an annual mental health summit to the region’s cities and counties. They brainstormed ways to hold community mental health events that would continually educate law enforcement, first responders, the business community, and the general public.
They also discussed ways to remove the stigma surrounding mental health through such events, and planned for the continuation of the community conversations into the future. The facilitated community conversations planning team committed to continuing the work that was developed for the region. Beyond these next steps, Matthewson believes the biggest value of the conversations was giving participants a chance to gather and speak positively and intentionally about the future of mental health care. The conversations gave stakeholders both hope and vision—two essential elements that spur the kind of problem solving that improves the lives of those who struggle with mental illness in central Minnesota.