Mental health successes meet real estate challenges
by CHRIS ROGERS
Shawn Semande tried everything. He saw therapists and psychiatrists. He stayed at group homes and residential care facilities in Caledonia and visited mental health experts in La Crosse, St. Peter, and Winona. “I’ve been in basically everything you can think of,” he said.
Since he was young, Semande struggled with severe anger and depression. “My anger was out of this world,” he said. He started fights. He raged at his friends. To this day, he runs into people around town that he knows from his adolescence in Winona. Many of them ignore him or hurry past. They remember how angry he could get, Semande explained.
"Nothing really helped,” Semande stated. “It kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger,” he said of his mental health problems. “I was always angry and depressed … I felt like a worthless pile of crap,” he added.
Last year, Semande successfully completed a three-month treatment program at the Family and Children Center’s (FCC) home-like Hiawatha Hall in Winona, but after he was released he slipped into worse depression. “I felt like giving up,” he said.
Despite the depression, Semande had people encouraging him to keep trying. Last fall, he agreed to go back to Hiawatha Hall.
Talking to him today, it is hard to imagine Semande erupting into violence. During his second stay at Hiawatha Hall, he finally made a breakthrough in his recovery that seemed to peel back the anger and depression and reveal a sweet and easy-going man underneath. A better man, Semande said. Semande became somewhat of a go-to helper for the staff at Hiawatha Hall, said FCC Clinical Supervisor Erin Anderson. When new clients needed a hand moving in, “Shawn was the first one out the door,” she explained. When someone hosed the living room and kitchen down with a fire extinguisher’s foamy spray while trying to put a small flare up on the stove, Semande labored beside staff to clean it up. “I always tried to help and cheer up the other guests,” Semande remembered.
Learning coping skills was a big part of Semande’s recovery. Deep breathing, taking a break, talking to a support person — those are the big three, Semande explained. In practice, when Semande starts to feel stressed, frustrated, or depressed, he often turns to physical activity. He takes a walk, plays basketball, or goes sledding. He shovels the walk. He cleans his room.
These coping skills are not earth-shattering new breakthroughs. They are the sort of thing many people try to do when they get upset, and the other therapists and mental health treatment centers Semande visited taught him those strategies, too. “I knew them before, but my anger was so out of control,” he said. “But when I went to Hiawatha Hall, they literally chipped this anger down. It was so different. I don’t know what happened. It was like magic.”
So what made his second stay at Hiawatha Hall different? What was the magic? Semande pointed to the staff who developed relationships with him. He described them all in turn and told stories about each one. He and the staff always made each other laugh, Semande said. One of Semande’s favorites was also demanding. He always gave Semande “homework” — something like painting a picture, doing some household chores, or writing. Semande loathed these assignments and threatened to grab the buzzer and trim off the staff member’s beard. It was just a joke. Semande sighed and went along. Once he started them, the assignments actually helped, he said. Semande described another one of his favorite staff members: “We really connected with each other. She saw me as a leader in the group ... We had a special bond.” It was these personal connections that made the difference, he explained.
“It feels amazing … I feel like [the anger] is all gone. I can control it. I’m in control now. It’s not like it’s controlling me anymore,” Semande said.
In some ways, Semande’s story illustrates arguments mental health care advocates often make. Recovery is possible, they stress, even if it is a long road getting there. Minnesota’s mental health care providers know what treatments and techniques can work, if the treatments are available, said Sue Abderholden, the executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), at an event in Winona this month celebrating NAMI’s 40th anniversary. This year, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton asked health care providers, state agencies, NAMI, and citizens with mental illness to study and recommend improvements to the state’s mental health care system. They found that many pieces of the mental health care system are missing or in short supply across the state, including in Southeast Minnesota. The group encouraged the governor and the legislature to expand these programs and create a more proactive, more functional mental health care system.
One of the services Minnesota needs more of, according to the Governor’s Task Force on Mental Health, are intensive residential treatment services (IRTS) facilities, such as Hiawatha Hall. Hiawatha Hall is a big Victorian house staffed 24/7 with room for nine clients to learn coping skills, daily living skills, and recover from mental illness and substance abuse. It has a big waiting list.
Hiawatha Hall serves around 45 to 55 people per year — most clients stay for a few weeks or a couple months — but it turns away another 25 people per year, according to FCC representatives. “We’re always full,” said FCC CEO Tita Yutuc.
FCC has spent the past two years looking for a new site to replace Hiawatha Hall, one where the IRTS program could serve more people — Yutuc wants to expand to 12 beds — with a layout more conducive to staffing, treatment, and handicapped clients. Ideally, the site would be a one-story building FCC could renovate or a one-acre lot where FCC could build. “It has not been easy to do. Winona is a difficult place to find land,” Yutuc said.
In the island city, land for all kinds of development is limited, and it is often hard for nonprofits to find large properties they can afford.
“We’re trying to be creative to figure out how to increase our capacity in a facility that is better suited to meet the recovery needs of those clients,” Yutuc continued. “We need some help finding property.”