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A Look Into Upper Midwest Mental Health Organizations

News | June 20th, 2024

By Maddie Robinson

maddierobi.mr@gmail.com

This article discusses topics related to mental health and suicide. If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or visit 988lifeline.org.

Since 1949, May has been known as Mental Health Awareness Month, a movement that educates the public about mental health conditions and available resources, and advocates for policy changes to improve access to services. June also marks the start of Pride Month, a time dedicated to celebrating LGBTQ+ pride that started after the Stonewall riots took place in 1969.

Initiatives like Mental Health Awareness Month and Pride Month are inextricably linked. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that more than one in five United States adults have a mental illness, and this number is higher for LGBTQ+ populations. Mental health among LGBTQ+ individuals, and in general, has become an increasingly talked-about topic, despite the social stigma surrounding it.

Even though May has passed, the fight to improve people’s mental health does not end as soon as the month is over. Other commemorative months like Pride Month can draw attention to related issues and, in conjunction with Mental Health Awareness Month, can shine a light on what needs to be improved and what is already being done in the Upper Midwest.

Faye Seidler, a North Dakota suicide prevention advocate, is the state’s data expert for LGBTQ+ populations, especially youth. According to Seidler, many adults and young people (particularly queer youth) in North Dakota are struggling with their mental health for various reasons, including having fewer resources and opportunities. Seidler noted that many people are leaving North Dakota, which further exacerbates worker shortages, negatively impacting adult and youth mental health.

“I see that there's teacher shortages, I see that there's nursing shortages. I see that it's hard to fill up counseling positions in rural schools,” Seidler said. “I see all these things, not just as a labor force issue, but it weakens our structures for youth to be able to get help.”

These shortages stretch existing workers thin and put them under more stress, as they have to take on more work due to vacant positions. Despite this, organizations in North Dakota and other places in the Upper Midwest exist to fill gaps in services and advocate for positive change in mental health policy.

One such organization is Canopy Medical Clinic, a Fargo-based medical facility that specializes in LGBTQ+ health and provides inclusive, affirming and sex-positive care to all queer people and allies. Established in 2020, Canopy was opened in order to create a welcoming place in Fargo for LGBTQ+ individuals to go that would provide care that meets their needs.

According to Kara Gloe, the director of mental health services at the clinic, there are not enough safe spaces that provide empathetic care to people with marginalized identities. But Canopy wants to change that.

“The goal was to create a space for the LGBTQ community to receive non-judgmental, affirming care, and also a place where individuals can come for sexual health care that is sex-positive and non-judgmental,” Gloe said.

Access to LGBTQ+ health care, and more specifically, transgender care, is deemed medically necessary by every major medical and mental health organization in the United States, and it can be life saving, especially for transgender youth, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Organizations like Canopy help meet this need and can be crucial for improving mental health for LGBTQ+ populations.

Among their many offerings, Gloe said Canopy provides free and low-cost STD and STI testing and treatment, free vaccinations to uninsured individuals, food access to those facing food insecurity through a partnership with the Great Plains Food Bank, birth control, hormone therapy and other gynecological services.

Another major aspect of Canopy’s work is their mental health services. The organization provides specialized therapy to the LGBTQ+ community and mental health and psychosocial services to individuals living with HIV. Their mental health resources also include a peer support program for people with HIV and a peer navigation program for LGBTQ+ community members.

Canopy has been experiencing unprecedented growth, Gloe said. The organization used to be based in a portion of the Sanford Professional Building before moving to their current, larger location on 32nd Street. They have also added another mental health therapist, an additional nurse, a program manager and an office manager in a short span of time.

As the demands for Canopy’s services continue to grow, Gloe said they are working to keep up with them. One of their main goals is to continue to expand their peer navigation support groups, as Gloe said they are able to foster a community that is incredibly needed in North Dakota.

“We have folks in our groups who are not out to their families, but they can come to these meetings in the beginning as strangers and build a community with people who understand what they're going through and be supportive,” Gloe said. “Without spaces like these, there are so many people who may not find those kinds of communities or those kinds of services.”

Another organization in the Upper Midwest that works in the suicide prevention realm is Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE). As one of the first nonprofits in the nation that focuses on suicide prevention, the Bloomington, Minnesota based organization will celebrate its 35th anniversary in August, said SAVE Executive Director Erich Mische.

According to Mische, SAVE has four pillars they use to anchor their work: education, training, advocacy and support for suicide loss survivors. SAVE’s current efforts include advocating for the passing of the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA), a federal bill, and the Minnesota Kids Code, a statewide one.

KOSA, first introduced in 2022, states that platforms that connect to the internet and are likely to be used by children and teens under 18 “must take reasonable measures in the design and operation of products or services used by minors to prevent and mitigate certain harms that may arise from that use (e.g., sexual exploitation and online bullying),” according to the U.S. Congress. Platforms must also, among other things, prevent the promotion of age-restricted products to minors, like tobacco, and annually report on the “foreseeable risks of harm” to minors using said platforms. Certain services, like internet service providers and email applications, are excluded from this bill.

Minnesota Kids Code, a similar bill, would require platforms that are likely to be accessed by minors to be “age appropriate and designed in kids’ best interests,” according to the bill’s website. The bill would also prevent the collection and selling of data from children’s internet usage, according to Mische.

Despite Mische saying both bills have bipartisan support, he added that many lobbyists and other opposers have been a challenge in generating momentum. Due to this, and other factors (like getting the bill through the needed House or Senate committees), Minnesota Kids Code did not pass this past legislative session.

“Despite tireless advocacy and bipartisan support, the Minnesota Age Appropriate Design Code, aimed at safeguarding children’s online experiences, faced a setback as Big Tech juggernauts deployed their financial might and influence to derail the passage of crucial internet safety legislation,” a SAVE press release from May 16 stated.

However, Mische said SAVE will be hosting a meeting with a Minnesota Kids Code coalition on June 18 about next steps the organization can take to meet their goals.

“We have every intention of bringing this bill back up again in the next legislative session,” Mische said. “At this point, we kind of look at this as a bump in the road.”

KOSA’s outlook looks brighter in comparison. The bill passed out of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Innovation, Data, and Commerce in May and will now go to a full committee for a hearing. Mische said he is hopeful the Senate will vote on it before the end of the month.

According to Mische, bills like KOSA and the Minnesota Kids Code can help protect minors from being exposed to content that negatively impacts their mental health and ultimately, can reduce the prevalence of suicide and suicide ideation.

“If we can get policies changed to get more regulatory oversight over these Big Tech social media platforms, all of those combined together can play a significant role in suicide prevention,” Mische said.

The second advocacy effort SAVE is focusing on is the installation of suicide prevention barriers on the Washington Avenue Bridge that connects the East and West Bank campuses at the University of Minnesota. After Kayla Gaebel died by suicide on the bridge in late 2023, her mother, MJ Weiss, called SAVE at the turn of the year with the intention of making lasting change that could help people who are struggling. Soon after, Weiss, SAVE, state legislators and other supporters began to advocate for funding that will establish prevention barriers. Mische said that, according to the research they have obtained, adding these barriers can drastically reduce the number of suicides at the bridge.

“The goal here with these barriers and deterrents is to create a active opportunity to disrupt the impulsivity of suicide,” Mische said.

Every year, the University of Minnesota requests funding through the Higher Education Asset Preservation and Replacement Bill (HEAPR), which goes toward maintenance of the buildings on the Twin Cities, Duluth, Crookston and Morris campuses, according to The Minnesota Daily. This year, the University’s Board of Regents requested $500 million from the Minnesota Legislature. However, the House and the Senate only provided $40 million. Of that amount, the University committed $15 million that will go toward bridge improvements, including the prevention barriers, which was originally outlined in a SAVE press release and later confirmed by Mische.

One of the biggest successes surrounding the funding is the specific language in the bill which states that a portion of HEAPR funds will be required to construct the barriers. This type of language has never been used before in this way, according to Mische.

However, Mische said the Minnesota Legislature adjourned without voting on the bill. SAVE is meeting with University of Minnesota officials to discuss the next steps and how to get the barriers built as soon as possible.

“The barriers are not foolproof,” Mische said. “But given what we know about certain public structures and buildings here in Minnesota, where we are seeing a significant number of people dying by suicide, we believe that these barriers can dramatically reduce suicides.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide or is experiencing a mental health crisis, seek help right away. Call or text 988 or visit 988lifeline.org. Visit Canopy or SAVE’s websites to learn more about their work and their services.

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