Mental health response team hopes to prevent crisis in Beltrami County

In northern Minnesota's Beltrami County, those struggling with mental illness often end up in the emergency room, or the county jail.

"When someone goes into some kind of mental health crisis, there aren't many places they can go," said Upper Mississippi Mental Health Center Director Paul Nistler.

It's a bad situation for law enforcement, hospital staff and people with mental illness, Nistler said, and one he hopes to change.

Beltrami County commissioners approved formation of a local Assertive Community Treatment team this week. There are 26 similar teams in 10 counties across the state, but Nistler said the new ACT team is Beltrami County's first effort to prevent mental health crisis, rather than respond to them.

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Using $250,000 in startup funding from Beltrami County, Nistler will hire a group of seven licensed counselors, psychiatric nurses and other mental health professionals.

The idea is to stay in consistent contact with 50 locals with chronic mental health issues — the people he said are known as "regulars" at the county jail. Starting next month, he'll work with the county to choose those 50 people. To be eligible for the program, he said people must have a diagnosed mental illness and at least two recent stays in either the emergency room, or the county jail.

The team will keep close tabs on medications, and check in for counseling sessions roughly every other day. They'll also help clients find housing and employment. The bundle of services, Nistler said is designed to keep people stable, and in their homes.

Funding for the ACT team comes from $2 million appropriated by the state Legislature for Beltrami County mental health programming.

Nistler hopes to finish hiring the ACT team by the end of this month. Once the team is settled in, they'll work with the county to compile a list of those mentally ill people who consistently end up in the hospital and county jail.