Commentary

Urgent care includes mental health

The statistics tell an important story. More than 20 percent of children and adults in our communities suffer from stress, depression, or some other form of mental illness. Yet, many of these good people are without insurance or ability to pay for care.

These issues need immediate attention. Left untreated, mental health problems can lead to drug use, school failure, violence, family problems, and suicide.

The other sad reality is that people who are unable to get the mental health care they need not only suffer themselves but place greater stress on hospital emergency rooms, correctional facilities, and their own families.

For decades, Lutheran Social Service (LSS), together with the help of Lutherans and support from other financial contributors, has been able to provide mental health counseling to people without health insurance or ability to pay in the Twin Cities.

But new developments are impacting our ability to continue providing this legacy of care in the metro area.

Recently, we were notified that one of our longstanding grant sources, United Way of the Twin Cities, will be eliminating $500,000 in support for mental health services at LSS starting October 1, 2009.

This change is taking place because United Way is shifting its financial priorities to serve organizations that combine mental health with primary medical care. Lutheran Social Service doesn’t offer this model of care.

What does this elimination of grant monies from the United Way of the Twin Cities mean for the people we serve?

Since the 1950s, financial support from the community — largely from United Way — has allowed LSS to provide counseling on a free or sliding fee basis when needed. Often members of our congregations and people in emotional turmoil have looked to us for professional help with depression, suicide prevention, marital stress, parenting issues, and other concerns.

With such a substantial loss in financial support from United Way, the unfortunate reality is that Lutheran Social Service will only be able to serve people without insurance on a very limited basis in the Twin Cities. This summer, we are already beginning to transition current uninsured and under- insured patients to other providers who do have subsidized mental health care.

However, with rising numbers of people without health insurance — estimated to reach 10 percent or more in 2010 — and few clinics to serve them, people with mental health concerns don’t have many alternatives. To be sure, Lutheran Social Service strongly supports legislative efforts to expand health care coverage to ensure that people have access to mental health counseling when they need it. And, we encourage Lutherans to write to their legislators, especially now, as discussions about health care reform are underway.

We are also seeking innovative ways to rebuild our counseling fund so that we can offer mental health services free of charge or on a sliding fee scale. One such example is our partnership with the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs to provide counseling services to veterans and their families free of charge.

Partnership with congregations and supporters has never been more important — not only to help us serve people who need counseling, but also to serve more people we see in many of our other services who are experiencing greater hardship during these challenging economic times. In our work at LSS, there are two fundamental convictions that guide all that we do. First, that God loves creation without condition; and second, that God yearns for us to love the neighbor.

We know that you, as Lutherans, share these important convictions. Let’s build those ways we can better love and serve our neighbors.

Mark A. Peterson is president and CEO of Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota