Peers in Action: Mary Richards

This month, we interviewed Mary Richards, who leads a Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) group in St. Paul.

Could you tell us a little bit about yourself, and what led you to begin volunteering as a support group leader?

I am a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) survivor. I had the umbilical cord wrapped around my neck 66 years ago when I was born, and I have dealt with the resulting brain injury all of my life. As an adult, I began to experience depression related to my TBI. I was in counseling for both my depression and brain injury, and my mental health provider suggested that I start attending support groups in addition to therapy.

In 1997, I began attending a Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) group in St. Louis Park. The facilitators of the group, Bobby and Sue, began to train some of the group members to become facilitators as well.

I became a DBSA group facilitator, and also completed a Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE) support group facilitator training.

After I completed the trainings, I began filling in as the facilitator for the St. Louis Park group that I attended, and then I became one of the lead facilitators of a new DBSA support group in St. Paul.

Today, I also do data entry work, I’m president of a self-advocacy council, and I’m also on the TBI advisory council that advises the Department of Human Services. I was appointed to the TBI advisory council in 2014.

Wow, so you have been a support group leader for quite some time!

Yes, for just about 20 years – I started facilitating St. Paul DBSA group in the late 90s.

What do you think peer-to-peer support groups contribute to a person’s recovery? What is unique about the peer-to-peer model?

Well, a peer-led support group means that there are no professionals, such as psychiatrists or therapists, involved. During peer-to-peer support groups, we do not focus on giving advice. We just share our own personal experiences, and can relate to each other because we often experience similar symptoms. Even if members of the group do not have the same diagnosis, we can often relate to each other’s symptoms. For example, I can often relate to people who have experienced memory loss due to medication or ECT, because I experience memory loss from my brain injury.

We honor each person as an individual, are non-judgmental, do not analyze symptoms, and only give feedback or advice if a person specifically asks us. We are not trying to provide treatment, but rather to share what we are going through, and connect with each other on a personal level.

We also sometimes share resources that we have found to be helpful such as the Minnesota Warmline, county crisis lines, homelessness resources, and 211.

Has leading a support group contributed to your own recovery journey?

I would say yes, it has. It has helped me become an active member of my community and allowed me to give back to my community. Being social, having relationships, and building community is an important part of recovery. Being a support group leader has inspired me to volunteer in other ways and join other social groups.

I used to volunteer at the Humane Society combing cats. There is also a website called that has given me all kinds of ideas for joining different groups. Through, I joined a card club and a diabetes support group. I am also part of a brain injury support group.

The St. Paul DBSA support group has also led to other social meet ups. A member from the group started a “share and get out of the house” group that meets at Caribou Coffee in the evenings and people just sit and talk with each other. It’s a place to be together when the group doesn’t meet.

What advice do you have for someone who is thinking about starting a support group in their community?

I would suggest attending an existing support group or attending multiple support groups, just to get some experience watching how the other facilitators operate the groups. It is also important to attend support groups just to gain an understanding of how they work, and how each group’s guidelines work. When you start your own support group, establish the purpose of the group and outline the guidelines.

Mental Health Minnesota offers support group facilitator training if you are interested in starting a support group in your community.

Apply to volunteer as a support group leader here!


Ask the Advocate: How Can I Build a Support Network?

People who need people are the luckiest people in the world. – Barbara Streisand


You ask, our advocates answer. This month our peer advocate, Suzanne, discusses the importance of having a community support network.


A critical element of recovery is building a community to support us as we journey down this road of healing and restoration. A successful recovery requires us to connect and accept help from others. We cannot do recovery alone.


The federal government through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) has identified four dimensions that support a life in recovery. These four dimensions are health, home, purpose, and community. Today, I want to focus on community, which is defined as “having relationships and social networks that provide support, friendship, love and hope.”  Our network enables us to be supported in many different ways by many different people for many different needs.


Recently, I spoke with Sandy. She called the Peer Advocacy line feeling very lonely and bored with life. She asked what she could do to change this situation. Sandy is not unlike others who call our Warmline or Peer Advocacy line who feel too isolated. Reaching out to ask the question is the first step in creating community. So how could Sandy create her own community support network?


We first discussed whether she was interested in having social connections with other people recovering from a mental illness. I identified a drop-in center close to where she lived that she could check out. A drop-in center is place that people living with a mental illness can go to socialize and participate in activities such as book clubs or cooking classes. Many drop in centers also provide other types of community support services, such as housing support and employment support.


I asked her if she prefers connecting with others through similar interests? I told her about Meet Up,, which is a large internet organization comprised of many different kinds of groups based on a shared interest, like playing board games or learning a new language. I said I knew this was a fast way to meet new people, because I have joined fun meetup groups, myself.


Next we discussed whether she was interested in working one day. I mentioned how having a structured life when you’re employed can help with loneliness and boredom, and to push forward recovery. We discussed how volunteering can be a bridge to employment. We discussed her interest in various causes that could serve as a basis for selecting a volunteer opportunity. I referred her to, which is a website that matches volunteers with organizations. They have opportunities for all kinds of causes.


And lastly, we discussed joining a support group. I discovered that she lives close to a Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) group, so I provided her with contact information. I also told her about Mental Health Minnesota’s peer-led Support Groups for Recovery and Wellness that are open to anyone who is experiencing a mental health struggle. I suggested online support groups if she is more comfortable connecting through the web. I also mentioned the Minnesota Warmline which provides social connection and support on the telephone.


After our conversation, Sandy felt some relief and hope. She is going address her loneliness and boredom by starting to build her community support network.


If you would like to talk about building your community support network, you can call Mental Health Minnesota at 651-493-6634, and schedule an appointment to speak with a Peer Advocate.

Mental Health Minnesota to offer online support groups

Mental Health Minnesota is expanding its support group program! Beginning in May, two peer-led Support Groups for Recovery and Wellness will be offered online. Online groups will meet every week and will be held on Tuesday evenings, beginning on May 8, from 7:00 – 8:30 PM and Saturday mornings, beginning on May 12, from 10:00 – 11:30 AM.


“Support groups can provide a wonderful opportunity for people to connect with others as they work on their recovery, and we are continuing to build out more and more groups as an organization,” said Shannah Mulvihill, executive director. “We are hoping that the addition of online groups will open up that opportunity to more people who may not be able to attend in person due to distance from a group, transportation, or other barriers to engaging with a group. It also acknowledges that a growing number of people prefer online options to connecting with others.”


Recovery and Wellness support groups are designed to foster an environment of inclusiveness and belonging. Group facilitators are peers – people who have personal experience living with a mental illness. Peer-to-peer support lends a unique connection, creates a safe space, and serves as a catalyst for hope.


“As a peer-led support group, not a therapy group, our goal is to share ideas and feelings. Our hope is that you will find our groups a safe place to learn and grow through shared experiences, mutual support and respect,” said Frank Dorsey, Support Group Program Coordinator.


All peer-led Support Groups for Recovery and Wellness are free and open to anyone who is experiencing a mental health struggle. Online support groups will require registration and be run via secure video conferencing software that is compatible with computers, tablets, and smartphones.



Mental Health Minnesota also offers in-person Support Groups for Recovery and Wellness, as well as Depression and Bipolar Alliance support groups. These groups are drop-in groups and do not require any registration.


Peers in Action: Kim Lutes

This month, we interviewed Kim Lutes, who was concerned about a proposed bill and took action. She recently testified against the bill at a Minnesota House of Representatives committee hearing.

Kim, why did you decide to testify at the Legislature?

There was a bill before the House of Representatives that would have made changes to civil commitment, including requiring law enforcement to take some people living with mental illness into custody if they missed their weekly doctor appointments.  As someone living with a mental health diagnosis, I knew that this type of heavy-handed approach to mental health care would not work, and that it would be in violation of people’s civil rights.  I knew that the reason I was able to move into recovery from my illness was because I had mental health providers who saw me as a person of integrity and built trusting relationships with me.  Knowing first hand how important it is to feel respected and supported by mental health providers, I felt that it was my duty as a citizen to speak out against this harmful bill.

What was it like to testify in front of your elected officials?

It was scary.  I had five minutes to say what I wanted to say.  I wrote my testimony out ahead of time and practiced it in front of the mirror.  But it was challenging, because legislators are not always careful about how they talk about issues related to mental illness.  The language some of them used was surprisingly antiquated and based on old stereotypes.  I hadn’t prepared myself for that, so I felt a bit offended at times.  But, I felt good about what I had to say because it came from my life experience.  I also felt good because merely by being there and sharing my expertise, I was challenging those old stereotypes.

Aren’t there advocates out there who speak on behalf of people living with mental illness?  Why didn’t you just let them do the work?

There are a lot of advocates at the Capitol trying to make sure that those of us who live with a mental health diagnosis get good care.  They are usually family members, friends or providers of mental health care.  I appreciate the work they do.  They are the people who were there for me when I was sick.  But, when it comes to truly understanding what it is like to live day to day with a mental illness, the people who are the true experts are the people who actually live with a mental illness.  We are the people who know first hand what works and what doesn’t.

Therefore, I felt that in order to make a good case against the bill, someone needed to talk about what it is actually like to live with a mental illness.  The unique perspective of someone living with mental illness is often missing in public conversation.

You say that the perspective of someone with lived experience is often missing?  What do you mean by that?

When conversations about how mental health services are delivered in our state take place, people living with mental illness are rarely at the table.  I think the reason for this is the perception that people with mental illness are not able to speak for themselves, or are too impaired to effectively be a part of those conversations.  This perception is false.  People living with mental illness are able to add an invaluable perspective to conversations.  They are the experts.

I have found that since there are few opportunities for people like me who have lived experience to give input into important decisions, we need to sometimes invite ourselves to the table.  That is why I signed up to testify against this bill that was being discussed by my elected officials.

I believe that it is important to point out that everyone living with a mental health diagnosis is unique, and that their experiences and perspectives are unique, too.

One voice of lived experience at the table is not enough.  We need lots of people to be willing to speak up.

What are other ways people who live with mental illness can participate in public policy discussions?

  • Anyone can call, email, or schedule a meeting with their representatives to voice their concerns! Find out who represents you here:
  • Almost every county in Minnesota has a local citizens mental health advisory council.  Check with your county to see if there are openings, and apply to be appointed.
  • The State of Minnesota also has a variety of citizen advisory councils related to mental health.  You can check with the Minnesota Secretary of State’s office for a list of openings.
  • Occasionally, the Department of Human Services or counties hold listening sessions to get feedback from citizens about issues related to mental illness.  When those are announced, take the opportunity to participate and give your perspective.

Ask the Advocate: How Can I Be an Advocate for Myself?

Meet Arthur: he is a person who lives with a mental illness and a physical illness. Like many of our callers, he expressed a need for more help in his home. Arthur and I talked at great length about his needs and what resources were possibly available to him.

At Mental Health Minnesota, we encourage our callers to advocate for themselves so that they realize the rewards of taking action. As the peer advocate, I wanted Arthur to feel the power that comes from self determination and successful resolution. Together we created a plan and Arthur set out to accomplish it.

Arthur wanted to apply for the CADI program so that he could have PCA services covered by his health care plan. He called the county social services intake line and requested an application. The next step required him to fill out the application and send in the appropriate supporting documentation.

Initially Arthur was turned down for the program. Rather than appeal the denial, which was Arthur’s first instinct, we discussed the quicker possibility of reapplying again given that things had recently changed in his life. He reapplied and this time was granted approval.

Today Arthur has help in his home so that his needs are being adequately met for him to remain living in the community. And the best part of all: Arthur advocated for himself!

Advocating for yourself is an important part of mental health recovery. Self-advocacy is an important skill for everyone, but can be challenging to do. It takes time, planning, and support. At Mental Health Minnesota, our Peer Advocates often coach or support people in self-advocacy.

Here are some steps you or a loved one can take to become an effective self-advocate:

1. When you are faced with an issue, concern, or barrier, evaluate the situation. Think about what your goals are and what you would like the outcome to be.

2. Even though you are advocating for yourself, you do not have to do it alone. Reach out to your support network and ask them for feedback. You can also contact Mental Health Minnesota and speak with a Peer Advocate.

3. Explore your options. Consider some possible solutions for the issue at hand. Think about what you can do on your own, and what you might need some help with.

4. Start to develop a plan of action. Break down the things you need to do into small, manageable steps, rather than trying to accomplish everything all at once.

5. As you are developing your plan, stay organized. Write down questions you have, gather relevant documents, and track your progress by taking notes. Keep records of the organizations and people that you contact.

6. When it is time to advocate for yourself, be prepared. Bring notes with you, or have them in front of you if you are talking on the phone. Articulate your concern clearly and calmly. Remember to be as concise as possible while explaining your concern – try to keep all details relevant to the issue at hand.

More than 500 people attend 2018 Mental Health Day on the Hill

More than 500 people attended this year’s Mental Health Day on the Hill, held on March 15, 2018. People came from across the state to attend the annual rally and meet with their legislators.

The theme this year addressed parity and equity for mental health. While great strides have been made in building Minnesota’s mental health system, there is still significant work to do to truly have parity and equity for mental health treatment and services.

“Despite so many years of work, mental illness is still treated very differently from physical illness, especially when it comes to early recognition and treatment of symptoms,” said Shannah Mulvihill, Mental Health Minnesota’s executive director.

This year, the Mental Health Legislative Network, which sponsors Mental Health Day on the Hill, also set up an information room in the Capitol after the rally so that people attending could find out who their legislators were and how to find them. More than 50 people visited the information room and then went to see their legislators, in addition to many people who had set up legislative meetings.

“We were really happy to see so many people visiting their legislators this year in addition to attending the rally,” said Mulvihill. “It’s so important for our elected officials to hear directly from their constituents that mental health is important to them.”

Didn’t make it to Mental Health Day on the Hill this year? You can still take action! Reach out to your legislators to share your story and your concerns. Don’t know who represents you? Click here to find out! And remember, Mental Health Minnesota’s Ambassador Program also provides training and opportunities to influence public policy as well!

FOX 9 (3/15/18): “Advocates: ‘Mental Health Can No Longer Be Treated Like a 2nd Cousin in Health Care”

View photos from Mental Health Day on the Hill here!

Mental Health Day on the Hill to be held on March 15, 2018

Mental Health Day on the Hill is just around the corner!

This year’s Mental Health Day on the Hill is coming up on Thursday, March 15, 2018. This year’s theme addresses parity and equity for mental health. We’ve made great strides in building Minnesota’s mental health system, but there is still a great deal of work to do to truly have parity and equity for mental health treatment and services.

Join us at this year’s Mental Health Day on the Hill to learn about the issues, talk to your legislators, and make your voice heard at the rally!

Mental Health Day on the Hill will begin with an issue briefing at the Cedar Street Armory in St. Paul at 9:30 AM. We will then move to the Capitol Rotunda for a rally from 11 AM to 12 PM, and then spend the afternoon visiting with legislators (Please make appointments in advance as much as possible). Not sure who represents you? Click here to find out. Volunteers will also be available to help you find your legislators if you’re not sure where to go.

Need a ride? Free bus transportation is available across the state so you can attend Mental Health Day on the Hill. Check out the routes and register online here.

Interested in learning more about lobbying and what YOU can do to make your voice heard this legislative session? Register here for our ‘Lobbying Simplified’ webinar on Monday, March 12, from 5:30 – 6:30 PM!

Mental Health Day on the Hill is sponsored by the Mental Health Legislative Network. For questions or more information, please contact:

Mental Health Minnesota – — 1-800-862-1799

NAMI Minnesota – — 1-888-NAMI HELPS

Peers in Action: Lisa Gjerde

This month, we were excited to interview Lisa Gjerde, who has served on the Carver County Mental Health Advisory Council for the past eight years.

Lisa, could you give us a little bit of background information about Local Advisory Councils and what they do?

While the State Mental Health Advisory Council in St. Paul meets monthly and reports directly to the governor, legislation also mandates that every county in Minnesota has a local mental health advisory council (LAC). Membership represents child and adult mental health concerns, and consists of a variety of people, including those who live, or have lived, with a mental illness; families of people with a lived experience of a mental illness; and mental health providers. LACs review and evaluate mental health needs and services in their communities and make appropriate recommendations to their county commissioners.

Could you tell us a little bit about yourself, and what led you to apply and become a member of the Carver County LAC?

It has been my privilege to serve on the Carver County LAC for the past eight years. To explain where I am today, let me say that knowing a situation through one’s life experiences helps a person better understand its intricacies. For example, a cancer patient will learn more about the disease and how to treat it, and sometimes becomes an advocate for other cancer patients. The same is true for mental health. When you are a person with a lived experience of mental illness, you have been “in the trenches,” and are better able to not only advocate for yourself on your recovery journey, but also to help others on their journey.

I live with both Major Depressive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Through my experiences with a variety of medications and therapies, hospitalizations and periods of crisis, I have learned that having a strong support network of practitioners, family, and friends is critical; yet, my own contributions toward my personal recovery are equally important. It is this experience with the mental health “system” that inspires me to learn more about it, to educate myself and others regarding what resources and services are available, what needs are being met and which remain unmet, etc., that eventually led me to my local advisory council on mental health.

How did you find out about your LAC and what was the process like to be selected as a member?

Originally, I was unaware that my LAC existed, until my therapist saw an LAC member recruitment ad in the local newspaper and thought I might be interested. Initially, I was more curious than anything, intrigued that elected officials would not only ask for, but place value on my personal experience in mental health. I completed an application and an informal interview with a county liaison, and the county commissioners appointed me to a three-year term. Eight years later, I continue to serve on the LAC, now completing my third and final three-year term (my county permits a maximum of nine years of service on an advisory board).

During my tenure, it’s been an honor to serve with people who have like-minded interests and are extremely passionate about them. The members, both past and present, are vibrant, intelligent, compassionate individuals who are totally committed to improving the status of mental health in Carver County. These individuals, more than anything else during my time on the LAC, have inspired me to continue with my service and work hard toward creating a more equitable and inclusive mental health system in my county.

So you’ve been a member of the Carver County LAC for eight years, and have served in official capacities as secretary, co-chair, and chair! Are there barriers that you’ve had to overcome in order to be an active member and leader?

Fortunately, I have not found that being a person with a lived experience of mental illness is a barrier: like any other group, you prove yourself over time via your commitment and work ethic, and members have voted for me based on merit and not my status as someone with “lived experience.” Yet by its nature, Major Depressive Disorder can present its own barriers in that it’s often difficult to find motivation and energy to complete tasks when one’s symptoms are high. Also, being a perfectionist means that I sometimes work harder than necessary and put in extra hours. Finally, the time commitment itself can be challenging, and even a barrier in its own right: recently, I took a three-month leave of absence to attend to family issues, not having time for both them and my service on the LAC, and the Council and the Commissioners were incredibly supportive in this regard.

What advice would you give to anyone interested in getting involved in their county’s LAC?

If you are truly passionate about mental health issues, have the requisite background or experience with it, and are willing to invest of your time – go for it! It’s critical to realize that being on an LAC is not about what you can get out of it, although you do get plenty, but rather what you can give to it. If you keep that in perspective, you will give and gain a lot during your tenure on an advisory council. Keep an open mind to hear about and learn new thoughts and opinions (not everyone on the council will agree with you or comes from a similar experience!), and practice patience.

A fellow member on my LAC once told the story of the starfish: A person threw beached starfish, one at a time, back into the ocean. A passerby asked him why he did that when he couldn’t possibly save all the beached starfish. Grabbing another one to throw into the ocean, the person replied, “It matters to this one!” (For more information, refer to ecologist and author Loren Eiseley.) That’s how working on an advisory council is – you may not be able to help everyone in your community who is affected by mental health issues, but what you do matters to those whom you positively impact!

In summary, during my time on the LAC I have learned about the legislative and societal pressures that impact mental health services, and I have learned more about myself and my capabilities, especially as I served in various offices. More importantly, I have learned not to let my illness define me – it is an invaluable part of who I am, but it is only that, “part” of me. Finally, I continue to learn that everyone has a story to tell in life, and that listening to those stories makes my life story richer and more complete.

Here’s how YOU can get involved in your county’s LAC:

Go to your county’s website, and look for the page that lists ‘Citizen Advisory Boards’ or ‘Advisory Boards’. These are usually listed under the ‘Government’ tab on the webpage.

Learn more:

Read more about LACs and what they do:

Read another story about peers participating in LACs here!

By: Lisa Gjerde

Ask the Advocate: Person Centered Planning

You ask, our advocates answer. This month our peer advocate, Suzanne, discusses person centered planning.

Meet Julia, a peer advocacy client. She called us because she felt her case manager was not listening to her. Julia’s case manager had never asked her what her goals were for housing. Without asking, her case manager picked out an assisted living facility. Julia did not want to move there. Instead, she wanted her own apartment in a diverse community of people of all ages and abilities.

Julia’s peer advocate wrote a letter to her case manager mentioning her right to person centered planning, community integration, and transition services. The advocate also identified Julia’s reasonable housing goals. The advocate served as a conduit for Julia to be “heard” by her case manager. After the case manager received the advocate’s letter, she called Julia and actively listened to her. Finally, Julia felt listened to and respected. Soon, Julia will be in her own apartment near her grandchildren—integrated into the community.

What is person centered planning?

A recent development in case management services is the requirement that services be provided using person centered care planning. Person centered planning is strength based and focuses on individual capacities, preferences and goals. This means that rather than being told what to strive for and how this should be accomplished, the person receiving services works together with their provider to identify reasonable goals and to decide how these goals can be achieved.

How do I go about identifying my goals?

When thinking about your goals it is important to consider not only what you ideally want but to also think about what is realistic. List the goals you would like to see happen in your life. For example, these goals might include: a) part time employment, b) living in your own apartment, c) having more friends, or d) reconnecting with family.

Can I get everything I ask for?

Keep in mind, you may not get everything you ask for. Your request must be reasonable, and will at times depend on ability of the community to meet your needs/request (i.e. whether the type of housing you request is available in the community you wish to live in). If your case manager thinks a goal is not reasonable, ask them to explain why and what you can do to change the situation. What is impossible today may be a possibility in the future.

How do I approach my case manager about person centered planning?

Before you meet with your case manager, think about how you want to prepare for the meeting and create a list to follow so that you don’t forget anything. To begin the conversation let them know that you have heard about person centered planning and would like to review the goals currently identified in your plan of service and possibly change some of them. Let them know that you have given a lot of thought about your life goals and what quality of life means to you. If you have talked with mental health professionals, friends, or family to gain feedback and support, which is highly recommended, pass that information on as well.

By: Suzanne Bachman, Peer Advocate

The Minnesota Warmline saw its highest call volume yet in 2017

Calls to the Minnesota Warmline reached a record high in 2017, with more than 8,000 calls during the year. The total reflects a 67% increase in the number of calls over the previous year. Since 2015, the number of calls to the Warmline has increased by more than 200%.

“Mental Health Minnesota took over the Warmline in 2015, and we have seen a significant increase in calls since that time,” said Shannah Mulvihill, executive director. “We are really pleased that so many people are able to use the peer-to-peer approach offered through our Warmline to connect and support their mental health recovery.”

A number of other changes were made to the Minnesota Warmline in 2017 to improve the service, including adding a call “queue” to enable callers to wait to talk with a Certified Peer Specialist (rather than calling back later if the lines were busy) and providing a texting option for people to use in addition to the traditional phone line.

The Minnesota Warmline also added a functionality within the phone system in 2017 that enables operators to provide a “warm hand-off” from the Warmline to county crisis lines.
“We see the Minnesota Warmline as an important part of the continuum of mental health services available to people across Minnesota,” said Mulvihill. “The ‘warm hand-off’ functionality allows our staff to ensure that a person calling the warmline can get the level of help they need, when they need it.”

The Minnesota Warmline takes calls from across the state of Minnesota, and is largely supported by the Minnesota Department of Human Services. In 2017, people called the Warmline from 74 counties across Minnesota.


The Minnesota Warmline provides a peer-to-peer approach to mental health recovery, support and wellness. Calls are answered by a team of professionally trained Certified Peer Specialists, who have first hand experience living with a mental health condition and receive ongoing training and support. The Minnesota Warmline is open Monday through Saturday, 5 PM to 10 PM, and can be reached by calling 651.288.0400 or 877.404.3190 or by texting “support” to 85511.