Mental illness task force to begin needs assessment in Brookings

By PAT BOWDEN Reporter

One in five adults have a diagnosable mental illness.

This statistic from the National Alliance on Mental Health is hitting home for Brookings community members.

A lack of behavioral health services in Brookings and statistics such as this prompted a task force to address the issue.

The Brookings City Council put together the task force in December to perform a mental health needs assessment in the community.

The task force, which had its first meeting March 20, is comprised of representatives from around the community. The groups represented include Brookings City Council, the Brookings School Board, South Dakota State University, state rehabilitation services, local hospitals and community members.

This task force is looking into the prevalence of mental illness in the community and how many community members are going to behavioral health facilities.

According to Dan Hansen, Assistant Dean in the College of Pharmacy and Allied Health Professionals, and city councilman, there is a growing need even on campus for mental health services.

“It’s eye-opening, I see it interacting with students at the college struggling with mental health issues and friends and family … you hear some people’s stories, things that we don’t realize are going on or realize that are happening,” Hansen said. 

Brookings, however, does not currently have a true behavioral health facility for mental illness, which has raised concerns in the community.

One assured outcome of this needs assessment will be a road map to help people and caregivers affected by mental illnesses find the help and resources they need to get treatment.

Everything else, including any mental health resource requiring funding, is still up in the air, according to Brookings School Board member Randy Grimsley.

“We have no funding at this point with budget cuts up and down in government … hopefully whatever improvements need to come can be funded,” Grimsley said.

Currently, the closest place a person diagnosed with a mental illness can be admitted into is Avera Medical Behavioral Health in Yankton or one of several locations in Sioux Falls. 

The lack of behavioral services in Brookings correlates to a lack of therapists and other services in rural South Dakota, according to Nikki Eining, Avera Mental Health therapist. 

Hansen hopes the level of care services in the community increases as a result of this needs assessment.

Hansen also hopes to implement possible solutions such as expanding the Brookings Hospital to include a behavioral health unit or implementing counseling in Brookings public schools. These solutions would help those affected by mental illness to “prevent them from going to Sioux Falls” and other nearby cities for behavior health, Hansen said.

Mental illnesses are nothing new to the Brookings area, however. Grimsley believes that just because this is a prevalent topic in the community does not mean it never was before.

“It stems out from comments from people in the community knowing mental health is an issue nation-wide that’s not always dealt with, period,” Grimsley said.

Nevertheless, people don’t always feel comfortable talking about their mental issues. There is a negative stigma associated with having a mental illness in today’s society, according to Hansen, who says this can make it hard to talk about.

“I think mental illness is something that is often hidden in the shadows and we don’t talk about on regular basis … they struggle within silence, and so it’s important to bring it out of the shadows and talk about it in the community and help out that population moving forward,” Hansen said.

Hansen said individuals will sometimes go untreated or even undiagnosed knowing they may have a mental illness.

Craig Pahl, a member on the task force, hopes to represent this population in the community. Pahl is also the president of a local non-profit mental illness advocate group called the Brookings Empowerment Project (BEP).

BEP’s mission is to provide financial support to caregivers and individuals affected with mental illness.

Pahl recognizes the need for more mental health services in the community, too, and the stigma with it. Without the education of mental illnesses, Pahl believes people don’t talk about it and “don’t talk about the lack of services needed for consumers.”

Research, too, shows that educating people on mental illness helps eliminate the negative stigma that comes with it, according to Eining, who doesn’t believe mental illness should be looked at negatively compared to other medical issues.

At SDSU, mental health education and services are available at the Wellness Center. On the other hand, these services are only available to those attending the university and paying the General Activity Fee (GAF), which funds this service. 

Pahl believes having this service puts SDSU at an advantage.

“The campus is in a unique position to provide some leadership in the community because they can be advocates not only for this on campus … they can also advocate in the community and that’s one of the things that I hope comes out of this,” Pahl said.