Wright County tackles mental health as community issue

Dr. William Tregaskis, coordinator of the Central Minnesota Mental Health Center in Buffalo.
(Courtesy photo)

A few years ago, some Wright County mental health advocates began meeting to conduct what they called "suicide autopsies."

Dr. William Tregaskis, then coordinator of the Central Minnesota Mental Health Center in Buffalo, and Stacy Doyle, Wright County victim assistance coordinator, would review the person's history and ask whether there were times when someone could have intervened and saved a life.

"We just felt like there was more we could have done proactively in the forefront to better connect people suffering with services, so that we could cut ... down on the numbers of suicide deaths," Doyle said.

Mitch Weinzetl was Buffalo's police chief at the time. He thought it was a good idea, but it seemed like too little, too late.

"I said, 'Bill, it seems to me that you're a little late to the dance,' " said Weinzetl, who now teaches criminal justice at St. Cloud State University. " 'Why don't you ask some of the people who try to kill themselves and don't succeed? These people can tell you.' "

Thus began a series of conversations that evolved into a communitywide effort to tackle the scourge of suicide. Many organizations have worked on the issue of suicide prevention, but few have confronted it quite so comprehensively as Wright County.

Mitch Weinzetl
(Courtesy photo)

Weinzetl, Tregaskis, Doyle and others began asking whether the community was doing enough to marshal resources to address mental health issues.

They began to invite more people into the conversations, including law enforcement, the VA, schools, corrections officers and people whose lives had been touched by suicide. They called themselves the Buffalo Mental Health Coalition, which evolved into Wright Mental Health.

Weinzetl and other law enforcement officers were frustrated that too often, they encountered someone in a mental health crisis but had no place to take them.

They also wanted to address the stigma attached to mental health. Recent cases of mass shootings have almost all involved someone with underlying mental health issues, Weinzetl noted.

"Unfortunately, that feeds a stereotype that those that are mentally ill are dangerous, which really is not true," he said. "Untreated folks that are mentally ill can present problems, but a lot of folks that get treatment are fine ultimately."

The Wright County group launched a public health campaign, creating posters, community notifications and hotlines to spread the word about mental health awareness and preventing suicide.

At the same time, the number of calls for service relating to mental health in the community tripled in a five-year period, Weinzetl said. He and the group asked if they were doing enough to help police officers understand mental health issues.

"Were we giving them enough information?" Weinzetl asked. "Not to the extent that we're going to try to make junior psychologists out of them, but enough to say, 'Do you really recognize these factors that contribute to ... this person is in crisis?' "

The group recognized that veterans returning to the community were bringing unique issues, including post-traumatic stress and trauma from experiencing violence.

The police department brought in speakers to talk about veterans issues and sponsored an eight-hour course on veterans in crisis that was attended by 50 people. The goal, Weinzetl said, is to create a greater awareness of the circumstances veterans face as they reintegrate into civilian society.

"They come back, they're not the same people," Weinzetl said. "Everybody wants them to go back to where they were. They will never go back to where they were. They will always be a new person."

Talk About It

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About the reporters

Kirsti Marohn has been a reporter at the St. Cloud Times since 1998. She has covered local and state government, social issues and the environment. Her father was a U.S. Marine and her husband served in the Minnesota National Guard prior to 9/11.

Marohn became interested in writing about veterans after hearing about the struggles many have faced since returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and how community resources were not always adequate to help them.

You can follow Marohn on Facebook and on Twitter @kirstimarohn.

David Unze has been a reporter at the St. Cloud Times since 1997. He has covered primarily courts, public safety and higher education.

The problems that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans face came to his attention through the interactions that police and the courts have with veterans in crisis. He also learned about the challenges that vets face when they return home and try to resume their education.

You can follow Unze on Facebook and on Twitter @sctimesunze.