Giving Intensive Support for Intense Mental Health Needs

When it comes to helping people deal with a life-threatening mental health crisis, there’s one place in northern Minnesota that treats more patients, more intensively, than anywhere else.

The 38-bed Adult Behavioral Health Unit in Essentia Health’s Miller-Dwan Building sees patients diagnosed with mental illness from throughout Minnesota, northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The unit is always full.

“In general, our patients come in with all levels of mental illness from anxiety and depression to bipolar disorder and more,” says Sherri Gouge, RN, Nurse Manager of the unit. “They come to us when they’re having difficulty coping with the outside world. We provide the support and skills they need to move forward or get back on track.”

One of the ways staff do that is by teaching Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) skills ––skills that can help people recognize and address difficult emotions, learn to live with mental illness and build a life worth living. But DBT is just one of the strategies behavioral health staff use with their patients. Gouge emphasizes that because every patient is different and because every patient comes to the unit with their own individual needs, every care plan must be carefully determined by both the staff and the patient. “Flexibility is key. We’re always asking ourselves, ‘What would best help this patient right now?’”

After 13 years in behavioral health, one might think the solutions should be obvious, but sometimes they require something more. More research, more creativity, more out-of-the-box thinking. Either way, they always include a team approach. Gouge works closely with other nurses, social workers, behavioral health technicians, therapists and psychiatrists. Together they help each patient create a toolbox for coping.

When Sherri began her nursing career, oncology was her chosen field. The economic downturn, however, led her unexpectedly to behavioral health, and she says, “I never left.” Early on, she learned that many of the same skills she would have used in oncology, she now uses in behavioral health–skills like listening, the ability to have difficult conversations and how to put people at ease. The number one goal is to help people feel safe.

To be admitted to the Behavioral Health Unit, people first arrive in a hospital’s emergency department, where medical conditions can be addressed or ruled out. Once admitted, they typically stay for a week. The environment is fresh, safe and therapeutic. A view of Lake Superior spans the length of the dining area. Being in an environment that feels safe and welcoming plays a big role in fostering calm and healing. It’s why the Foundation’s Healing Space campaign funded improvements to the adult behavioral health unit, including dedicated spaces for sensory rooms, spirituality, exercise and a host of other improvements. For a health specialty that’s often been stigmatized by society and underfunded, the Foundation’s improvements were a godsend.

An average day on the behavioral health unit includes psychotherapy sessions and substance abuse counseling, exercise, art and other activities. And of course, DBT, also funded by the Miller-Dwan Foundation. “Everyone needs to know how to do mindfulness (one of the self-soothing and resiliency tenets of DBT). It helps everyone in a moment of anxiety,” says Gouge. In addition to psychiatry and group therapy, staff teach patients skills like journaling, managing a budget, grocery shopping with wellness and tight budgets in mind, and other practical life lessons.

“The Miller-Dwan Foundation does amazing things to help us take care of our people and care for ourselves, ” says Gouge.  That’s ranged from feel-good gifts of goodie baskets and candy to a day of massage and light therapy for staff. It has included funding staff training for non-traditional therapies and helping Gouge’s team incorporate pet and music therapy. It all adds up to fostering a more dignified, healthy and compassionate atmosphere.

“It takes a person who really wants to work in mental health to take a job here, because the work is different,” she says. But the team knows that mental illness is just that: an illness. Like diabetes, cancer or heart disease. They know that “When you come to our unit, you are a patient no matter who you are or why you’re here.”

Supporting mental health

When it comes to mental health and substance use care, providing the right care at the right time is the guiding principle of the Miller-Dwan Foundation’s support for quality mental health care in our region.

Timely accessibility to treatment and therapy helps everyone in our region—helping to save lives and reduce health care costs. Thanks to donors, we’ve continued to support inpatient and intensive psychiatric care for all ages, as well as Amberwing – Center for Youth & Family Well-Being.

  • Learn how you can support mental health care in our region.
  • Watch a video about finding help and why the Foundation helped create a more healing space for mental health.
  • If it’s life threatening, get immediate mental health help by calling 9-1-1.
  • When it comes to helping people deal with a life-threatening mental health crisis, there’s one place in northern Minnesota that treats more patients, more intensively, than anywhere else.

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Together we will realize our shared vision of a community free from mental health crisis.