Guest Column: Make it OK to talk about mental illness

Published 8:27 pm Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Guest Column by Ann Austin

Ann Austin


Editor’s note: This is the first of a series of columns written this month in honor of Mental Health Awareness Week Oct. 7-13.

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Back in 2012, when our United Way board was considering which areas in the community most needed to be addressed, we performed a community survey focused on the areas of education, income and health.

The survey results indicated community members were most concerned about early childhood development and building positive caregiver relationships, ensuring basic needs were being met/people were financially stable, and there was growing concern about the need for mental health services.

We began regular community conversations in 2013, focused on determining where we could have the most impact in local collaborative efforts.

Significant concerns were expressed by local mental health providers. At that time, many providers were retiring or moving — and there was an increased gap in services available for community members, especially youth.

Bringing providers together helped create connections. People started to talk to each other about the common issues they faced — and ways we could work together.

The Community Mental Health Committee was established that year — our goal was to raise awareness about local services and reduce the stigma associated with mental illness.

We convened partners from around the community to identify ways we could provide education and ensure people were getting the help they needed.

The first event we organized as a committee was called Make It OK. The presenter shared his personal story and helped educate a group of about 80 community members about what mental illness looks like and who it affects.

According to NAMI, one in five people are living with a mental illness; however, people don’t seek help because they are afraid to ask or they don’t know where to go for help.

One woman in the audience spoke up about her husband, who was a farmer and had lived with depression for many years — but it had gone undiagnosed. She watched him withdraw throughout the course of several months, and called a few places to seek help, but did not know where to turn. He died from suicide soon after.

Deaths from suicide are increasing across the nation, especially with our youth. People don’t have to get to this point. It’s up to all of us to make it OK to reach out for help and to know who to call.

Mental illness impacts the long-term health and well-being of a growing number of our population. Freeborn County Public Health has collaborated with Mayo Clinic Health System-Albert Lea campus in administering a Community Health Assessment throughout Freeborn County. Through this assessment, they have recognized that mental health continues to be a significant community concern.

This is why, in 2017, we finalized the process to become a NAMI MN affiliate. NAMI Freeborn County organizes events and trainings to educate community members about mental illness, and help them be aware of local resources.

Outreach in the past has included mental health first aid classes, gray matters (focus on older adults), get to know NAMI, mental health in the workplace, grassroots advocacy training, and we are planning a first responders mental health first aid training in the spring of 2019.

This work has only occurred because of strong community partnerships — and it can only continue through such partnerships, as well as the support of community members like you.

A lot has happened since 2013 — and many organizations have worked hard to create more access to resources for community members. We are so thankful to have all of the services at the Freeborn County Mental Health Center to ensure people are receiving the help they need, the support group meetings every Wednesday at the Next Step Clubhouse, the counselors in local schools who are helping youth understand how to better cope with life’s challenges, and all of the local providers who engage with clients one-on-one.

At every presentation and community event we participate in, I hear stories from individuals, family members, co-workers, friends, supervisors — people from all walks of life. They are stories of grief and of hope — and the NAMI advocates always encourage them to seek help and to keep talking.

People who are living with a mental illness often feel isolated; it is up to each of us to reach out and offer the support we are able. Recovery is possible. We need to make it OK.

More information about NAMI and local services can be found on our website: or through NAMI MN at

Ann Austin is the co-chairwoman of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in  Freeborn County.