Rep. Ami Wazlawik: Mental Health Needs

Rep. Ami Wazlawik, who announced September 22 that she will not be running again in 2022

My interest in mental health began in high school when I took a psychology course as one of my electives. I found the study of the human mind to be fascinating. I majored in psychology in college, where I wrote a research paper on the connection between sexual assault and disordered eating for my capstone course.

I also struggled with my own mental health challenges during this time, experiencing symptoms of depression that began to impact my life in a noticeable way. I turned to the mental health system for help, with varying degrees of success.

My symptoms have waxed and waned since then, but I have noticed along the way issues related to the accessibility and affordability of mental health care services. The pandemic exacerbated mental health issues for many people (myself included). This has pushed more thinking around the shortcomings of our mental health systems and how we might address them.

Mental health care exists on a continuum depending on the severity of mental illness and an individual’s needs, among other factors. For some individuals this might mean regular visits with a psychotherapist and/or the use of medication; for others it might mean attending a day treatment program or a residential treatment facility.

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted or halted these critical mental health services in 93% of countries worldwide, according to an October 2020 WHO survey. Large numbers of people have experienced social isolation, loss of loved ones to COVID and/or fear and anxiety related to the disease over the past 18+ months. We are experiencing a sort of collective trauma right now and I don’t believe that we’re prepared to deal with it – within our mental health system or more generally in society. That’s why it’s so important that we as policy makers, and frankly, as human beings who care about other human beings, do what we can to push back against the stigma associated with mental health and facilitate the expansion and improvement of various systems.

Lately, as a state representative from White Bear Township, I have had the opportunity to discuss the status of our mental health system with constituents and advocates. Here is what I am learning.

What Minnesota Is Doing Well

  1. Minnesota has better coordination of care than many other states.
  2. We have a mental health court program, which diverts eligible defendants with mental health disorders from the criminal justice system to community-based mental health, substance abuse, and support services.
  3. We also have a long-standing school-linked mental health services program, which helps reduce barriers to access of care for children and families.
  4. Advocates and legislators have spearheaded efforts to continue and expand tele-health services in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

What Is Not Going as Well

  1. We are facing a shortage of mental health professionals, particularly in rural Minnesota.
  2. There is also a need for more BIPOC professionals in the field.
  3. Reimbursement rates for mental health services are very low.
  4. The billing process tends to be overly complicated and frustrating for providers.
  5. There are issues that span systems as well, such as a lack of truly affordable and supportive housing and programs to help people experiencing mental illness find and retain employment.

There is clearly a lot of work that needs to be done to ensure that our mental health system is accessible and affordable, and that it meets the needs of all Minnesotans experiencing mental illness.

One specific issue that the Legislature needs to address is the licensing of mental health beds. There have been efforts to advance reforms in this area but they have received pushback from various entities. I am hopeful that legislators and other stakeholders can come together in a future legislative session to iron out differences and make some progress. There is also a general need for program expansion and increased funding to the programs that already exist.

The Legislature in general, and the House Behavioral Health Policy Division specifically, have done a good amount of bipartisan work to address many of our state’s issues.

Call to Action

Get involved with organizations that work to improve the lives of people with mental illness. One example is NAMI Minnesota, an organization that does a lot of great work, including advocacy, at the Capitol. They have a Legislative Committee and send out information to members about what they are up to and how folks can get involved. You can always contact your legislators directly to let them know your priorities. The 2022 legislative session starts on January 31, 2022. 

Editor’s Note: Rep. Ami Wazlawik announced that she will not seek reelection to the Minnesota House of Representatives in 2022.  Thanks to a bill she introduced during her first year at the legislature, Minnesota became the first state in the nation to prohibit the use of the carcinogenic chemical TCE. As a child care professional outside of the legislature, Rep. Wazlawik used her expertise to improve access to affordable, high-quality child care. Bills she championed were signed into law to expand access to child care for children with disabilities, support family child care providers, improve Minnesota’s child care regulations, and incentivize early educators to earn college credits and remain in the field.  Rep. Wazlawik fought for survivors of sexual assault. In 2020, one of the bills she introduced to help survivors get justice was signed into law. It established a 120-day look-back period to determine if a perpetrator was in a position of authority, closing a loophole that could be used to exploit minors.