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Branching out to Help: Gerard Community Mental Health Services going to those who need it

Although the woods surrounding Gerard Community Mental Health Services seem quiet, the amount of work that the staff does every day is anything but silent.

Every day, therapists at outpatient services work with those around the area to get them the mental healthcare services they need.

Addressing a shortage of mental health care providers, Gerard Community Mental Health Services fills in the gaps that exist as a program of Gerard Academy, a nonprofit organization that provides specialized services to children, youth and families struggling with mental health needs. For more than four decades, Gerard Academy created an environment helping thousands of children and families cope with issues like emotional trauma, anger, depression or anxiety.

As a senior therapist, Matthew Talmadge has been working with clients at Gerard’s outpatient services. Having first worked as a residential therapist at Gerard Academy starting in 2001, Talmadge went on to supervise two units, and then started working full-time at outpatient services in 2016.

There’s no typical day at Gerard. Talmadge shared that he and his colleagues have seen patients as young as two years old to the oldest being about 89. It could be a child struggling with emotional distress or someone who is approaching the end of life.

“There’s a feeling of gratitude to be able to improve the wellbeing of a community,” Talmadge said. “It’s very fulfilling to be able to see the community improve. I feel like I’m contributing to the wellness of a community, and there’s a variety of things I can do to help.”

Sometimes Talmadge travels to various sites in the area to meet with clients and to check-in. One day he may be at Woodson Kindergarten Center, the next at I.J. Holton Intermediate School. Maybe Talmadge would be at Ellis Middle School later in the week.

“I see between 30 to 36 clients during the school year,” he said. “The need for services has definitely gone up.”

Among the outpatient services that Gerard Community Mental Health Services provides include: Diagnostic assessments, individual psychotherapy, family therapy, couples therapy, birth to five diagnostic and therapy services, including play therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, psychological testing and assessments.

Gerard hasn’t always offered outpatient services, only starting in 2015 when Austin Public Schools originally approached the organization about providing mental health services for the district’s early childhood education students, according to Julie Peters, director of outpatient services. After what was considered to be testing out the need, it became clear that Gerard was addressing a need by helping families and children all over Mower County.

Just this year alone, Gerard received “triple” the amount of referrals for people in need of counseling or therapy over last year, according to Peters. Thankfully, Gerard was able to increase its staffing as well, having grown from one full-time clinical therapist to five full-time clinical therapists and two interns.

However with a growing number of clients seeking appointments, Gerard might possibly have to consider hiring more therapists and look at additional options to help with the workload down the road. The organization has established an internship program with The University of St. Thomas, St. Catherine University and St. Mary’s University of Minnesota to help build professional, qualified mental health care providers.

“We’re able to meet our needs right now,” Peters said. “When we had only two therapists, there were 100 people on waiting lists. Since growing to five therapists and two interns, we’re able to bring people in. It’s been positive.”

Although it was challenging to pinpoint a specific reason why there was an increase in the number of referrals for outpatient mental health services, Talmadge noted that it may be because of the lack of providers around the area and possibly a cultural shift in the ongoing dialogue about mental health, resulting in more people becoming comfortable seeking help.

“There’s been a greater push in Minnesota and a greater focus on mental health for kids who may have been falling through the cracks,” he said. “There’s just a number of challenges in the healthcare field in general like the cost of schooling and stagnant wages. There’s a myriad of issues.”

Grateful for Gerard

After experiencing childhood abuse and trauma, and currently battling depression and acute stress, one client uses Gerard Community Mental Health Services to empower herself and found strength in finding someone who listens and helps. Out of respect for privacy, Austin Daily Herald withheld her identity.

The main reason why the client chose Gerard and started using therapy services was to help her become a better mother. She experienced an abusive and short childhood and didn’t feel as if she had a lot of parental guidance.

“Having my first daughter at 23, I had no clue and no one to help me,” she said. “So with that, from day one I questioned if what I was doing was right, and honestly, I just wanted to have someone guide me.”

Before Gerard, the client struggled with being limited to a hospital or a few private services in town before finding someone who she connected with as a therapist. That person ended up being Talmadge.

“When I learned of Gerard outpatient and met Matthew, I felt I had finally found the right fit for me and my family’s needs,” she said. “I am so thankful Gerard is here, as it was getting harder to find someone I connected with.”

Through her counseling sessions, she explained that she has been able to work on communicating with her daughter’s father, helping her daughter deal with bullying and low self-esteem, and it has helped her through a miscarriage.

For two years, the client has seen great success in utilizing outpatient services.

“I have grown so much since starting these services,” she said. “I wondered during some days where I would be without Matthew’s help.”

Turning toward the future

It seemed to be a positive step in the right direction for Gerard Community Mental Health Services. It recently finished building additional office space for its growing staff and started exploring potential offerings in the future once assessments are done.

Gerard is possibly thinking of adding group therapy sessions, and staff are actively working with local organizations, such as the Parenting Resource Center, and working to help refugee families and marginalized community members get connected to resources that help address mental health.

“That partnership started about a year ago in helping those families navigate the community,” Peters said. “They have experienced a lot of trauma and have been through so much. Many of them experienced traumatic stress, and they’re still living with that. They lived with trauma their whole life and many were in survival mode.”

One of the challenges that Peters found in trying to help refugee families and marginalized groups seek mental health treatment when needed was the cultural and societal norms that other groups of people may have grown up with that view dialogue about mental health as a taboo subject.

“You don’t want to overstep your boundaries or other people’s cultures,” she said. “I’m hoping that a lot of the community members will come together and educate some of those things about mental health and navigating some of those conversations. We’re hoping to expand out into those communities, and reach them when they need help.”

Since the implementation of the outpatient services at Gerard, it looks as if there’s no stopping anytime soon for continuing to provide quality care for people in need of some help.

“It’s been a great commitment,” Peters said. “I’m grateful to be here.”

Just a phone call away

If you or your loved one is struggling, please schedule an appointment with Gerard Community Mental Health Services at 507-434-4366.