Regional psychiatric center closes its doors

Published 9:31 am Wednesday, March 19, 2014

BRAHAM — Thousands of patients with severe mental illnesses will have to turn elsewhere for treatment after one of the largest mental health agencies in Minnesota abruptly ended service.

Riverwood Centers, which provided outpatient clinical and community-based mental health services to several thousand residents in Chisago, Isanti, Kanabec, Mille Lacs, and Pine counties, said county funding cuts have forced it to close its five clinics and an emergency home visiting service.

“I don’t have the words to describe how I feel,” said Bruce Echelberry, 64, a Riverwood client from rural Milaca. “Astounded? Angry? They decided that money was bigger than our mental health.”

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The Minnesota Department of Human Services has issued an urgent request for community agencies to provide mobile crisis services in the region affected. The closure comes at a time when communities across the state face a severe shortage of psychiatric services. A legislative report issued last month said hundreds of patients are visiting hospital emergency rooms and county jails because the state doesn’t have adequate mental health services.

“The big fear is that people will just pull into themselves and not seek help,” said Mary Fehring, a member of the mental health advisory council in Mille Lacs County. “It’s hard enough for these people to reach out and get help, and now we’ve just created another barrier. It’s scary.”

Riverwood Centers, founded 50 years ago, served as a safety valve when the state began to move psychiatric patients out of large institutions and into settings close to home. It provided group therapy and one-on-one psychiatric counseling in homes and communities where people with severe depression and other mental illnesses lived.

Riverwood’s funding became increasingly tenuous in recent years, according to Executive Director Kevin Wojahn. Public subsidies have not been increased for more than 15 years, Wojahn said, and private insurance providers were making smaller payments. Wojahn said it was a “death knell” when Mille Lacs County finally ended its contract with the center late last year.

“This is a true tragedy for our region,” Wojahn said.