Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The struggle September 16, 2019



Those words emblazoned across the back of her red-white-and-blue plaid shirt grabbed my attention. But what did they mean? I assumed the phrase likely referenced immigration issues given the cultural event where I spotted the statement.

But not 100 percent certain, I approached the young woman and asked. The struggle is real refers to struggles with mental health, she said. She battles depression, but is doing well right now, crediting her family for their support. We didn’t talk much. I hugged her, offered words of encouragement and thought how bold of her to publicly voice those words: THE STRUGGLE IS REAL. I wonder if anyone else asked her about the message she wore.

Those words seem so fitting for those who live with mental illness. Think about it for a minute or ten. Say you or a family member are struggling with depression, anxiety, bipolar, post traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia or any other mental illness. Do you struggle? Do you struggle to get up in the morning, to find a job or go to work, to engage with others? Do you struggle with stigma, with the all too common belief that you can simply snap yourself out of whatever? Do you struggle to find a mental healthcare provider? (There’s a severe shortage here in Minnesota.) Do you struggle to get the meds you need when insurance companies deny coverage? Do you struggle?

THE STRUGGLE IS REAL. Those words fit.

Thankfully, that struggle is becoming more visible as attitudes change and voices rise. Support groups, such as those offered through the National Alliance on Mental Illness, bring hope and help. But we can do better. We can, as friends and family and communities and churches, show more care for those affected by mental health issues. I mean, how often have you seen a fundraiser to help individuals and families dealing with financial hardships resulting from mental illnesses? Do we send get well cards to individuals who are suffering from a mental illness? Do we bring them or their supporting families hotdishes (otherwise known as casseroles in other parts of the country)? Do we surround and love and support just as we would someone with cancer, for example?

THE STRUGGLE IS REAL. Those words fit.



That leads me to the book, The Crusade for Forgotten Souls—Reforming Minnesota’s Mental Institutions, 1946-1954 by Susan Bartlett Foote. A professor emerita in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota, she will speak at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, September 17, at the Owatonna Public Library. I only learned of her book a week ago and sped-read through this detailed historic look at efforts to reform mental health hospitals in Minnesota decades ago.


A building on the campus of the former Minnesota Asylum for the Insane, Fergus Falls, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2013.

This is not an easy read. It’s emotionally difficult to read of patients who were abused—confined to straightjackets, subjected to lobotomies, tied to toilets, fed gruel, denied very basic human rights… But to read of the Unitarian Church activists, the politicians (notably then-Governor Luther Youngdahl), journalists, healthcare professionals and others who cared and fought for “the forgotten people” also brings hope. They effected change. Yet, some of their work was undone when new politicians took office and societal attitudes shifted. The politics referenced in Foote’s book made me realize how little things change.


Foote’s book will be of special interest to people in my community of Faribault, once home to a state-run facility known as The Minnesota School for the Feeble-Minded. In late 1946, a grand jury convened in my county of Rice to investigate alleged abuses at the Faribault school. Jurors found the misuse allegations to be unwarranted, contradicting findings of other outside investigations. Foote’s research is extensive, her book packed with details about the multi-layered challenges of reforming mental health care in Minnesota.

THE STRUGGLE IS REAL. As much today as yesterday.



Check out the National Alliance on Mental Illness website, an invaluable resource.

Visit the blog, Penny Wilson Writes, for an honest look at “the struggle,” including a resource list.

Read this book: Troubled Minds—Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission by Amy Simpson

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


16 Responses to “The struggle”

  1. Jackie Hemmer Says:

    You never really know what people are struggling with, Mental Health is a big one. The hug you gave that girl was probably bigger to her than you know. Keep on hugging Audrey! I wish I was there to hug you now….. sending a big hug over the web…..much love!

  2. Marilyn Donnell Says:

    I wonder if there is any place where there is enough adequate health care for those who struggle. Thanks, Audrey for this post, much appreciated. I hope my hugs will bless the ones who need it most today.

  3. sheketechad Says:

    I have many immediate family members for whom the struggle is real. Thanks for reaching out and recognizing another human being 🙂

    • You are welcome. To each of your family members for whom THE STRUGGLE IS REAL, I extend my understanding, my compassion and my support. And to you, who are also affected as a loving family member, I offer the same. Thank you for being there for your loved ones.

  4. Missy’s Håndarbeid (Missy’s Crafty Mess) Says:

    I think there are people who struggle through ever day of life. It heartbreaking to think that they often don’t get the help that they need as well as the impact on their loved ones.

  5. Littlesundog Says:

    This really hit home for me. I’ve had my own struggle going on most of my life, and am thankful to have had pivotal people present at the right times to help me along with support and direction. I am fortunate to have had jobs that offered excellent insurance so that I could get professional help, and I could afford to buy (second hand mostly) self-help books.

    It’s amazing what our thoughts tell us most of the time – lies, untruths (when in an unhealthy state of mind). My first thought on, “The Struggle is Real” shirt held political tones of some sort. These days, so much protest boldly screams “look at me – I have something to say”! To an introverted person, those kinds of statements are just more stress and noise to try to deflect. I was surprised at the answer when you had the courage to ask, and found myself smiling pleasantly as I read on. I really love your message of awareness… what a wonderful thing if we all cared enough (or took the time to notice another’s pain) to offer hugs and compassion.

    • First, thank you for sharing your story, your journey, your strength. And for acknowledging those who have helped you along the way. I see you as a deeply kind and compassionate woman, evidenced in the stories you share. You care. About others. About animals. About the environment. I always appreciate your thoughtful and insightful comments, too.

      When I first saw the message, I had the same initial reaction of the words likely making a political statement. So the answer surprised me. I knew I had to write about this because through my writing, I can make a difference. I can help by offering insights and information and hope. And compassion, too. The editor of our local paper asked to republish this, thus reaching a wider audience locally. We do what we can when we can.

  6. How brave of you to ask what the words meant. Plus, there are levels to too, not everyone that has a mental issue has the same level as extreme as what is publicized in the media. Just because someone is labeled something doesn’t mean they are not able to cope with what they have. We are all individuals not to be grouped. I struggle with PTSD. Yes, we all hope that the public will be more accepting and supportive.

    • There is nothing brave about asking. The bravery comes in the struggle, like yours with PTSD. My dad dealt with the same, for a life-time, after fighting as a combat soldier on the frontlines in the Korean War. I hope you are finding help readily available. That can be a struggle, too.

      • Yes, I have received help as needed over the years. It is a continuing process and just like grief for a loved one, you can never be sure what sound, smell, or large amount of stress will trigger it. But, I live with my condition and unlike some I have known, live the condition. There is a huge difference one you can control how it effects your life, the other the condition controls your life.

      • Really good points. Thank you for this insightful comment.

  7. valeriebollinger Says:

    Thank you for writing this post and helping spread awareness of these very real struggles. There are so many people who suffer from mental illness and we are unaware. I’m glad you asked the gal the meaning behind the saying on her shirt. And for your response to her…what a blessing.

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