As the 2020 campaign ramped up this fall, Republican state Sen. Jerry Relph reflected on his time in office during an interview, highlighting his efforts to help spur development of affordable housing and to aid businesses.
But one topic held special importance: his advocacy for people with mental illness. Relph in 2020 was named a legislator of the year by the Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), in large part for his work to update laws that guide when and how people can be involuntarily committed for psychiatric help.
“That’s probably, I would say, the single-best honor that I’ve received,” Relph said during the late September interview, conducted outside of a coffee shop in his St. Cloud District. “I’ve received a lot of, I think, very good accolades. But this one is one of the most important to me.”
Relph died Friday, reportedly because of complications from COVID-19. The 76-year-old Vietnam veteran and attorney had been elected in 2016 and served one term before losing by 315 votes to Democrat Aric Putnam this fall. Relph tested positive for COVID-19 after coming in close contact with someone who had the disease at the Senate, a Senate spokeswoman said in mid-November. MPR News also reported Relph was one several Republican senators who tested positive after they attended a post-election party.
Sue Abderholden, executive director of NAMI Minnesota, said on Sunday that Relph “really did care about people who are struggling with mental illness and other kinds of disability.”
Relph said he sponsored more than 20 bills this year related to mental health, including a mammoth piece of legislation to update rules for people who are legally committed to psychiatric help.
Abderholden said one measure in the roughly 60-page bill, approved by the Legislature, allows counties to intervene earlier to help people struggling with significant mental health problems.
The government can’t step in and order involuntary treatment unless a person is ruled a danger to themselves or others. But Abderholden said many families say they can tell when a relative is experiencing problems, may be off medication, and needs help soon to prevent bigger issues down the road. The new law says counties can send in people like social workers over a 90-day period to try to get someone to voluntarily enter treatment.
Abderholden said the civil commitment bill helps ensure people with an existing order for involuntary psychiatric treatment continue to get medication if in jail. She said Relph also sponsored legislation that kept open many residential psychiatric facilities for children. The Legislature sent state money to help after the centers lost federal Medicaid money, when many were at risk of closing.
At the Capitol, Relph served as vice chairman of the Senate’s Family Care and Aging Committee, where he also worked on legislation aimed at protecting the elderly.
Relph always took time to listen to NAMI’s point of view and was quick to carry legislation aimed at helping vulnerable people, Abderholden said. When given the legislator of the year award, NAMI Minnesota’s board president said Relph sponsored a bill to ensure mental health providers had money to deal with the pandemic. “I can’t remember him ever saying no to us,” Abderholden said.
Relph said many of the mental health measures he sponsored were adopted this year. “I’m pretty proud of that,” he said.