Two years ago, self-described Minnesota State Fair enthusiast Dave Lee had an idea. An appointee to Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton’s State Advisory Council on Mental Health, Lee was visiting the fair, as he does every year without fail, when he decided that the mammoth event would be the perfect place to increase public understanding about mental health.
“I thought, ‘The fair is a place where people are in the mindset to be open to seeing mental health in a different light,’ Lee said. “Look around: People are having a wonderful time and their minds are open to new ideas. It’s a really good setting to cast mental health in a different light.’”
Lee, director of health and human services for Carleton County, thought that Minnesotans’ attitudes around mental health needed a makeover. Too many of the state’s residents struggle with untreated mental illness and its aftermath, and too few people feel comfortable talking about it.
“Depression is the No. 1 chronic condition for residents in this region,” he explained. “That means that depression is more common than asthma or hypertension. And it’s very treatable. It’s one of the most treatable chronic conditions.” But when depression is not treated, he added, it can have fatal consequences.
Awareness and openness around mental illness is important in suicide prevention, Lee said. When the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released national data on suicide, one element he found particularly troubling was the statistic that over half of Americans who died by suicide during the study period were not diagnosed with a mental illness before their death.
Since rates of suicide in Minnesota continue to rise, Lee figured that if state residents felt more comfortable talking about their mental health and seeking treatment for their symptoms, they’d be more likely to get the lifesaving treatment many of them needed.
Creating a welcoming, unintimidating forum at the Great Minnesota Get-Together where visitors from all backgrounds could learn more about mental health and access resources designed to help them build resiliency and take care of themselves or their loved ones would be a great way to get these important conversations started, Lee said.
“The more we can make mental health a common discussion, the more we can bring it into our everyday conversation, the more lives we will save. Bringing that discussion to the powerful platform of the State Fair offers us the opportunity to say, ‘This topic is important to every one of us.’ ”
When he got home from the fair, Lee raised his idea with some of his fellow State Advisory Council members, including the council’s Subcommittee on Children’s Mental Health. With full council support, he made an appointment with State Fair administrators, who greeted the idea with enthusiasm. They told him that the fair’s Dan Patch Park and Stage were available from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Aug. 27, 2018. If he and his colleagues could organize an event big enough to fill the space, they could have it.
Danielle Dullinger, Minnesota State Fair spokesperson, said the event’s timeliness appealed to staff. They want to host events that speak to visitors and can spark important conversations and helpful action.
“We all read the news,” Dullinger said. “We see what’s happening: the unfortunate deaths of prominent people. Instead of having a stigma around mental health, why not bring it to the forefront? When you break your leg, you go to the doctor to fix it. Why not think about mental health in the same way? The fair has always been a forum where we discuss different topics and issues of the day, so it was the perfect place for this event.”
Lee took a deep breath and, with the support of the Governor’s Advisory Council, decided to make Mental Health Awareness Day a reality.
A day of awareness
It didn’t take long for Lee and his fellow Advisory Council members to realize that organizing 10 hours of programming focused on mental health awareness was a tall order.
One other statewide organization, NAMI Minnesota, has hosted a small booth in the fair’s Education Building for more than a decade. Lee spoke with NAMI-Minnesota Executive Director Sue Abderholden, who offered to partner with the council and dedicate staff time to organizing the event.
Minnesotans are ready for a statewide conversation about mental health, Abderholden said. More people are willing to talk about the issue, and many are feeling primed for action. It wasn’t always that way, Abderholden said: During the first few years NAMI-Minnesota ran its State Fair booth, visitor reaction was muted, to say the least.
“People would stop by, look at our booth, see if anyone else was looking and then come up to us. Now people come up and talk to us all the time. We’re in a different place than we were a decade ago. Attitudes are changing. We’ve made great progress.”
This more open attitude about mental health makes it a perfect time to host Mental Health Awareness Day at the fair, Abderholden said. NAMI staff was thrilled to partner on the project. Beth Ringer, NAMI Minnesota’s director of community outreach and engagement, stepped forward to be the event’s lead organizer.
“For mental health awareness to be the focus at the Dan Patch Park and Stage for a whole day is a big deal,” Abderholden said.
It was quickly decided that the message of the event would be hopeful, Abderholden added. “We want this to be an uplifting, uniting experience. Everyone has mental health, good or bad. We want to focus on promoting good mental health. Our message is, ‘Here are things you can do and places you can go to improve your mental health.’ ”
Events booked for the Dan Patch Stage won’t be limited to panel discussions or lectures. There will be plenty of options for entertainment, too.
“There will be a variety of acts,” Abderholden said, “all with a connection to mental health.” The day will start and end with a drum circle from the American Indian Mental Health Advisory Council. The children’s mental health performance group Fidgety Fairy Tales will perform and rocker Adam Levy will play a number of songs, many from his critically acclaimed “Naubinway” album, written to honor his son Daniel, who died by suicide.
There will also be a range of speakers and emcees during the day, including author and mental health advocate Alisha Perkins, John Moe, host of the American Public Media podcast The Hilarious World of Depression and Minnesota psychiatrist and podcaster Kaz Nelson, M.D.
“It is an amazing event,” Abderholden said. “People are always looking at tractors, new windows, food at the fair.” Having a daylong event that does the same thing for mental health will be a benefit to fairgoers, she added.
“There is more awareness these days about the importance of mental health, so this will be a good opportunity for fair visitors. And having it mixed in with everything else just normalizes the conversation. That’s exactly what we want to do.”
A big undertaking
Pulling off an event like this one will take many people working together, Lee said. Beyond staff required to run the daylong stage events, some 100 volunteers and employees from a variety of organizations will also host 36 informational booths in Dan Patch Park.
Lee credits Ringer and the rest of the staff at NAMI Minnesota with making his idea become a reality.
“Quite frankly this wouldn’t have come to fruition if it wasn’t for their support and organizational expertise,” he said. “The idea was the easy part. Being able to put legs underneath it and make it happen was the hard part.”
Seeing so many people come together at the fair to talk about mental health and wellness will send the message that mental health is as important as physical health, and it is something that all Minnesotans should care about, said Dave Johnson, Co-Chair of the Governor’s Advisory Council’s Children’s Subcommittee on Mental Health.
“The stigma is still pretty bad around mental health for a lot of folks,” he said, “especially for folks that don’t have lot of understanding of mental health issues. The State Fair is a great opportunity to get the message out to all Minnesotans that we can all take care of our mental health and learn how to be mentally healthiest people that we can be.”
What’s particularly exciting is the size of the potential audience, Johnson said. Each year, some 2 million people attend the fair, and hundreds of thousands of them will walk by Dan Patch Park.
“If all of these people see so many mental health organizations there, with people having regular conversations about the issue, it will make talking about mental health feel normal to everyone,” he said. “Hopefully people will feel more comfortable getting the help they need after they see us out there at the fair.”