Minnesota needs more housing for people with mental illnesses
Brian experienced a mental health emergency for the first time in 2005 when he was 42 years old. He held a physically demanding job as a pedicab driver on the West Coast, often working as many as 16 hours a day. And then one day, he started hallucinating.
“I didn’t know what to do except tell people I was having high anxiety,” he said.
Over the next eight years, Brian was hospitalized six times for treatment, each stay lasting several weeks. Each time after Brian was released without transitional services, he didn’t take his recommended medication, and he continued to experience anxiety.
Finally in 2010, Brian came to Minnesota to visit his father and brother, who until then had believed Brian’s condition had been stabilized. But within four days of his arrival Brian was back at the hospital, where he stayed for three weeks, receiving treatment for anxiety.
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Housing is a critical need for people experiencing mental illnesses
Fortunately, Brian had somewhere to go after he finished inpatient treatment: an intensive residential transitional care facility run by HealthPartners, a Minnesota health system.
The facility where Brian stayed is staffed 24/7 with social workers, therapists and nurses. It gives residents a safe, supportive environment to transition back to living in their communities. On average, patients stay in transitional care facilities for 60 days.
Transitional housing programs are designed as a stepping stone to help patients with mental health conditions or substance use disorders move out of hospital settings and back into the community. The programs help patients develop a healthy, stable path – and, when needed, continue to support them as they manage their daily lives.
Addressing a statewide gap in mental health services
Housing might not seem like an important element of health care, but for people with mental illnesses who are trying to stabilize after a mental health crisis and avoid a return to inpatient care, safe and supportive housing can be crucial. However, a recent study commissioned by the Minnesota Hospital Association and conducted by Wilder Research showed that there is a shortage of transitional care facilities in communities throughout Minnesota. Many people with mental illnesses often find themselves released from hospitals without access to care that supports the transition back to their communities. In many cases, they end up back in hospital treatment settings, which may cause undue stress and higher medical costs for patients, their families and providers.
Mental health services needed in communities
For Brian, the biggest benefit of staying in a transitional care facility was having a community of people around him and knowing that he wasn’t alone. He’s also grateful that he had caring nurses who oversaw the administration of his medication.
“It took eight years until I was convinced that I should take the medication,” he said.
With the help of these programs, Brian’s condition has been stable for three years. He takes his medication regularly. He volunteers at a local church and school. He’s even studying for the LSAT in the hopes of entering law school next year.
“I was fortunate in that I had a place to stay,” said Brian. “It was helpful. It reinforces the idea that there’s a community of care.”
Fixing Minnesota’s mental health system
Minnesota’s hospitals believe each patient should receive the best care possible in the right care setting. Demand for mental health services exceeds capacity throughout the state, which means that many Minnesotans cannot access care in the appropriate setting for their needs in a timely manner, if at all.
Take the example of Brian. Without the additional support offered by a transitional housing program at HealthPartners, he might still be caught in a cycle of refusing his medication, landing back in the hospital for weeks, then being discharged and beginning the cycle again. Instead, because his program supported his recovery, Brian remains stable in his community.
Many Minnesota hospitals offer – or are in the process of developing – transitional housing programs that provide a critical level of care to the state’s mental health system. But we can’t do it alone.
Improving mental health care for all Minnesotans will require a statewide solution. It will mean removing the red tape that makes it so difficult to build and operate facilities like the one where Brian could achieve recovery.