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Published December 22, 2012, 11:30 PM

Parents navigate help for mental illness

Most with mental health issues not violent, psychologist says
FARGO – When Christine Heinze took her 4-year-old son, Connor, to a pediatrician, she was told the young child likely had a mental or behavioral illness.

By: Wendy Reuer, INFORUM

FARGO – When Christine Heinze took her 4-year-old son, Connor, to a pediatrician, she was told the young child likely had a mental or behavioral illness.

“I was a new mom, so I didn’t know other children his age. I thought he was normal,” Heinze said.

The Fargo resident said professionals quickly stepped in, diagnosing and forming treatment plans for Connor, who was diagnosed with about 16 illnesses including Asperger’s syndrome and attention deficiency hyperactivity disorder.

Heinze said she follows through with professionals’ recommendations for Connor’s treatment and asks a lot of questions, which has made navigating the mental health field easier.

But for other parents, finding help can be a daunting task, from figuring out the signs of mental illness to finding out how to make an appointment with the right professional.

Heinze said parents must get involved if a mental illness is suspected, but it can be tough for a parent to admit there’s a problem.

“There are a lot of parents who deny their kids have issues,” she said.

Majority not violent

A national conversation about mental health care was sparked after the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., a week ago when 20-year-old Adam Lanza gunned down 20 children and seven adults, including his mother.

Lanza reportedly suffered from mental illness, and many wonder if there are signs that were missed that could have predicted his behavior.

“What we know, hands down, is the vast majority of people who have mental illness are not violent and never will be violent,” said Dr. Jon Ulven, a psychologist at Sanford Health.

Ulven said research shows anyone has a 25 percent chance of suffering from some sort of mental illness at some point in their life.

He said attempts to profile people to see if they’re prone to violence simply don’t work.

“The problem is you can take characteristics of people you think will commit violent acts,” Ulven said. “You can look for some of these, but you’ll find thousands of other people share these same common factors and they will never be violent.”

As a community, we should be looking for signs of distress, Ulven said. If a child or adult seems to be acting aggressively or unusual for their personality, Ulven urges those closest to the person to step in, talk with them and, if necessary, take steps to seek professional help.

Where to go

Parents have never had more resources to turn to than they do now, said Andrew Larson, department chairman of integrated behavioral health services at Sanford Health in Fargo.

Sanford recently began an “integrated approach” to mental health care.

In the past, a parent could ask a child’s pediatrician about mental or behavior issues. If the primary doctor felt the child should be referred to more specialized help, it would be up to the parent or guardian to make an appointment with a mental health professional.

That appointment could take weeks or months to secure, and more often than not, the follow-up appointment would not be made or kept, said Sanford spokesman Darren Huber.

Sanford’s integrated approach allows a primary doctor to immediately refer a patient to in-house mental health professionals.

“Doctors will literally send the patient across the hall, and (patients) are seen then and there,” Huber said.

Ed Eide, executive director of the Minnesota Mental Health Association calls the approach excellent, and a big step toward making mental health care more accessible.

“I think that because there is such a shortage of mental health practitioners, especially outside the metropolitan facilities, anything that works that gets more access to mental health professionals is a good thing,” he said.

Essentia Health in Fargo partners with Prairie St. John’s to evaluate and treat individuals who need immediate mental health care, said Kevin Pitzer, chief administrative officer of Essentia Health’s West Region. Outpatient services are referred to area professionals, he said.

From July 1, 2011 to June 30, the eight regional Human Service Centers in North Dakota served 4,633 youths, said Alex Schweitzer, who oversees the Human Service Centers in North Dakota.

Schweitzer said he feels North Dakota’s system has been adequate so far, but as the state continues to grow, more people may need mental health services.

Eide doesn’t think today’s services are adequate, at least in Minnesota and on the national level.

“There is a shortage of psychiatric services for both children and adults,” Eide said. “There are even fewer beds for children than there are for adults.”

There are about 50,000 practicing psychiatrists in the U.S. and about half of them are older than 55 and will soon retire, according to the American Psychiatric Association.

A March report by the APA said about 57.7 million Americans will experience a mental health disorder in a given year. In the past five years, the number of children diagnosed with attention deficiency hyperactivity disorder increased from 7 percent to 9 percent.

Cost an issue

Eide said paying for children’s mental health care is a challenge. While many adults can meet Medicare requirements for coverage, children depend on aid based on family income and if they are covered by health insurance.

Huber agreed that one of parents’ main worries is the cost of mental health care.

Insurance coverage for mental health services is often separated from primary medical services in many insurance plans. This can mean a patient will be covered for physical conditions, but have limited or restricted coverage for mental health conditions, he said.

A spokesperson for Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota, which covers about 680,000 North Dakotans, said all of its plans include coverage of mental health.

Today and tomorrow

After news broke linking Lanza to mental illness, Heinze said she was worried about what people would assume about Connor.

Despite his illnesses, Connor has never been a violent person, she said. In 2010, Heinze worked with North Dakota legislators to pass an anti-bullying law after Connor was bullied in middle school.

Connor is doing well, but Heinze said she worries about his future and whether he’ll be able to receive the adult mental health services he’ll need.

Where to start to get help for someone who may be having mental health issues

• School psychologists and counselors work with parents to identify problems.

• Ask the child’s primary doctor or pediatrician. Sanford doctors can refer patients to immediately see a mental health professional. Essentia Health contracts with Prairie St. John’s for emergency evaluations and with other mental health care providers.

• Prairie St. John’s, the only non-governmental agency that serves North Dakota, Minnesota and South Dakota in this area, provides assessments at no cost. Assessments are done 24 hours a day, seven days a week by appointment or walk-in.

• Southeast Human Service Center in Fargo. Call (701)298-4500 or 1(888)342-4900 for a mental health screening. The Southeast Human Service Center serves Cass, Ransom, Richland, Sargent, Steele and Traill counties.

• Clay County Children’s Mental Health Services in Moorhead. Call (218) 299-5200. Clay County Social Services provides early identification and intervention, emergency services, outpatient services, family support, treatment screening, case management and home-based family treatment services to children with severe emotional disturbance and their families.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Wendy Reuer at (701) 241-5530