Residents of central Minnesota facing mental health challenges should know that help is one quick phone call away, thanks to a project that began in 1995. The CommUNITY Adult Mental Health Initiative (CAMHI) serves adults with serious and persistent mental illness in Benton, Sherburne, Stearns and Wright counties.

“One in four people experience mental health challenges. Many people live with symptoms of a mental illness for 10 years before seeking treatment, largely due to stigma,” said Bethany Oberg, initiative coordinator. “We don’t want that to happen.”

Bethany Oberg, CommUNITY Adult Mental Health Initiative director. The program offers mental health services to those with serious and persistent mental illness in Benton, Sherburne, Stearns and Wright counties.
Photo by Jennie Zeitler

One of the top goals of the initiative is to break the stigma associated with mental illness. This can be done by talking about it, by being educated on mental health, and by challenging the stereotypes people have of what mental health or mental illness looks like.

In 1995, the CommUNITY project was initiated in Benton, Sherburne, Stearns and Wright counties through grants from the state of Minnesota. This was set in motion as mental health services in the state transitioned from state hospital-based to community-based services. The goal of CAMHI and the new services delivery system is to reduce hospitalizations and provide mental health services closer to consumers’ homes.

There are 18 adult mental health regions around the state serving 87 counties and reservations, each working locally to provide the best services as close to home as possible.

“People are served while being able to stay in their communities, by therapists, counselors and other in-home services,” Oberg explained. “Each region initiative does this a little bit differently, but there are similarities. The services are life-altering.”

Mental health care is focused on preventing or bringing people out of a mental health crisis.

For people using medical assistance (MA), there is an assessment team working to determine the best care in each situation. There is additional funding available so that people who are not on MA can also be served.

Other services that CAMHI provides funding for include housing vouchers, flex funds, vocational peer specialist program (starting in 2018), vocational services, a peer socialization event program (starting in 2018), residential treatment services, and crisis services.

“Our providers support people in their employment,” Oberg said. “Maybe they are having challenges keeping their jobs or needing help with the process of finding a new job.”

Free training sessions are offered at least once a month for professionals and the general public; you do not have to be a client/consumer served by the initiative in order to attend.

“We want to help people improve their lives by giving them information about how they can do that,” said Oberg. “It’s important for everyone to take care of their mental health.”

The CAMHI board of directors is made up of many professionals but also has representation by consumers who advocate from their unique perspective in identifying wants vs. needs for those who use the services.

One of those consumer advocates is Polly, who first heard about CAMHI seven years ago from a social worker.

“A woman I was mentoring was on the board then, and I went on the board as an alternate,” said Polly.

Polly has served on the board’s anti-stigma committee and will be joining the training committee as well. She has found her confidence increasing as she participates with the board and attends trainings.

“Going to the meetings has become easier,” she said. “Talking in the meetings is easier.”

A recent training covered the topic “How to Make it Through the Holidays.” Upcoming January trainings will discuss “Gray Matters: Bipolar, Schizophrenia and Borderline Personality Disorder in Older Adults” and “Sex Trafficking.”

“I always get something out of the trainings to better myself or to share with someone,” Polly said. “The trainings are monthly, and I go about every other month, on average.”

While trainings are held in a number of different locations, Polly goes to many trainings at the St. Cloud Public Library. There can be as few as 10 people at a training or as many as 30 to 40.

“Different people come in and do the trainings,” she said. “I like to go with a friend.”

In 2016, more than 620 people attended trainings through CAMHI, with a high of nearly 100 people at one training. More than 120 applications for flex funding were approved in 2016. CAMHI helped send 43 police officers in the four-county area to crisis intervention team training, so they are better prepared when responding during a mental health crisis.

Oberg emphasized that it’s important for people to reach out if they have mental health concerns, whether it is for themselves or for a friend or family member. Reaching out can include talking to your doctor, talking your religious leader, calling the crisis line, or calling CAMHI. If CAMHI cannot provide the help needed, then a referral can be made to other area agencies and organizations.

A wallet-sized leaflet titled “Adult Mental Health Resource Guide” is also available with a wide variety of resource and agency contact information.

Persons interested in participating or wanting more information should contact the CommUNITY Adult Mental Health Initiative offices in Foley by calling (320) 968-5277 or emailing camhi@co.benton.mn.us. The organization’s calendar can be accessed at http://mnmentalhealth.org/calendar.