Transforming Thief River Falls into a Supportive Community for Mental Health
As mental and behavioral health therapists at Sanford Health in Thief River Falls, Minnesota, Dr. Trent Barstad and Chief Operating Officer Rob Lovejoy understand the mental health challenges facing rural communities. Because of location restrictions, economic and social disparities, and a shortage of mental health professionals in rural areas, accessing the necessary treatment is often challenging.
In fact, according to the Star Tribune, a statewide shortage of community health options, such as psychiatric beds, can cause months long wait times for those seeking mental health treatment.
Sanford Health and the Thief River Falls community are beginning to fill gaps in rural mental health care by creating a continuum of care. From inpatient clinical services to community-based assistance programs, they’re building on strong partnerships to ensure patients receive the right care at each step in the treatment process.
Improving Inpatient Services
In late 2015, Sanford Health opened a new behavioral health center in Thief River Falls, including six new beds in the behavioral health unit and outpatient mental health services. Before expanding, behavioral health staff often turned away more patients than they accepted due to high demand.
While adding new beds was crucial, bringing the total bed count to 16, it’s how Sanford Health is putting them to use that’s really made a difference.
The unit allows staff to differentiate between “high acuity” patients and those presenting milder symptoms to provide them with appropriate treatment in separate spaces. Now, specific beds are dedicated to patients experiencing severe mental health issues, allowing staff to accept more patients while continuing to provide high-quality care.
“We determine an appropriate setting for each patient based on theseverity of his or her condition,” said Barstad. “People we would describe as actively suicidal, for example, are more likely to end up in the high acuity unit. As soon as their symptoms decrease, they are able to receive care with other patients.”
Staff are also working to seamlessly integrate behavioral health into medical health care. Barstad said that fostering communication among behavioral health and medical staff is critical to reducing the number of patients readmitted through the emergency room or other crisis services.
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Mental health care beyond hospital walls
Outside of the hospital, the community is becoming increasingly more engaged in mental health care.
Barstad said that by the end of 2016, Sanford Health is planning to establish partial hospitalization for patients with mental illnesses. While the average length of stay for inpatient mental health treatment is 7.2 days, this initiative allows patients receiving care to travel between their home and the hospital during treatment, rather than staying at the hospital for an extended period of time.
Thief River Falls was also selected as a pilot site for a behavioral health home model that helps patients transition from inpatient treatment back into a community setting. The program combines outpatient mental health services with primary medical care to serve patients with a dual diagnosis or multiple behavioral diagnoses.
For individuals farther along in the treatment process or who have conditions that don’t require hospitalization, two residential locations, Northern Lights and Pathfinders, offer the opportunity to learn valuable life skills and develop personalized plans for recovery.
The hospital is even partnering with local businesses to support employment for those transitioning back into the community. “We’re working to connect the continuum of care for individuals in the community,” said Barstad. “We’ve started asking, ‘How can we help these individuals seek gainful employment and become independent in their employment?’”
The Future of Mental Health Care in Rural Minnesota
By addressing the gaps in mental health care in Greater Minnesota, Barstad and Lovejoy hope to transform Thief River Falls into a mental health supportive community.
“For many people, seeking the right treatment is about hope,” said Lovejoy. “So how do we give hope to people? The key is bringing the services to the individual through the community and making sure those services are accessible.”