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Forum focuses on health issues

HOUGHTON – Two different but complementary approaches to mental health were on display at a community forum Thursday.

The forum, the first in a planned series by the Portage Health Foundation and James Ruppe Foundation, featured motivational speaker Tim Cusack and Claudia Weber, a psychologist and pharmacist from the Center for Rural Mental Health Studies at the University of Minnesota-Duluth Medical School.

Cusack, a downstate resident with family ties to Hancock, led off the night with a series of crowd participation exercises.

First, he asked the crowd to name something for which they were grateful.

“We don’t do it,” he said. “We don’t practice what we did just now. When you’re negative, it goes into your body, it goes into your soul, it goes into your bones.”

By contrast, he said, “When you say something grateful, when you say something positive, you actually are blessing somebody else.”

Cusack laid out four keys – believing, connecting, safety and purpose.

He asked the crowd to name some of the problems afflicting children, then the sources of those problems. Those sources were grouped into five clusters – community, media, schools, parents and courts.

Volunteers from the crowd stepped into the roles of each group. Schools blamed parents, parents blamed courts. Four of five blamed media.

Cusack segued to “What can I do?”

“If there’s some kids that look like they might be gang-affiliated at the end of my block and something’s going on, I can drive by and I can talk to my wife, and I can say to my neighbors, ‘Those damn kids right there,’ or I can walk down and meet the kids,” he said. “They know that I’m here. And I go to my kids’ school and I volunteer … That’s what I try to do.”

After Cusack, Weber spoke about the services of the CRMHS, which provides virtual mental health services via teleconference at their local clinics.

About 200 patients are seen annually, Weber said. The number of sessions has grown from 11 in 2003 to 603 last year.

It’s important for mental health professionals to connect to smaller primary-care providers, Weber said. For one thing, most patients will first go to a primary-care physician with their symptoms, regardless of whether they’re physical or mental. About 80 percent of mentally ill patients are managed in a primary care setting; due to stigma, lack of resources or other issues, most patients with mental health issues will never see a specialist.

When going into a community, Weber said, she also makes sure to visit, learning from patients and care coordinators about the local resources on hand.

“Say the patient’s very anxious … we have a person with no social support, they’re sitting home, they’re all alone, maybe they’re depressed, maybe they’re going to drink,” she said. “But I can say to them, ‘Did you know that the library in your community, on Tuesdays, they have a book club?'”

Response from patients and providers has been overwhelmingly positive. In surveys, 89 percent of patients and 90 percent of physicians said they were “very satisfied.”

Seeing a psychologist can also have benefits to physical health as well, Weber said. Relaxation and combatting depression can benefit conditions such as hypertension and diabetes.