Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A powerful Northfield sculpture focuses on mental health July 30, 2019

 

PAUSE ON THE CORNER of Division Street by the Northfield Public Library in the heart of this historic southern Minnesota river town, and you will find yourself next to a massive rusting sculpture.

 

 

 

The public piece calls for more than a cursory glance at an abstract person reaching skyward. The art calls for passersby to stop, read the inscription at the base of the sculpture and then contemplate the deeper meaning of “Waist Deep.”

This temporary downtown art installation, created by 15 Northfield High School students and three professional artists through the Young Sculptors Project and funded with a $10,000 grant from the Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council, creates a community-wide public focus on mental health issues. After two years, the sculpture will be permanently placed in the high school courtyard sculpture garden.

 

 

Like any art, “Waist Deep” is open to personal interpretation. The signage notes, though, that the sculpture is meant to support those struggling with mental health in the community, of needing and receiving help from caring others.

 

 

As I looked at the layered and fractured pieces comprising the sculpted person, I saw beyond the arm reaching for help and the lowered arm with curved hand clawing the earth. Both represent, in my eyes, darkness and light, hopelessness and hope. Mental illness leaves a person feeling incomplete and broken. Fractured. Trying to hang on. Reaching.

 

 

I photographed the sculpture on a recent weekend morning under rainy, then partially cloudy and sunny skies, not unlike the ever-changing skies of mental illness. Sometimes pouring. Sometimes parting. Sometimes shining with hope.

As the sculpture name “Waist Deep” and art itself suggest, those dealing with mental health issues can feel waist deep in the water of the disease—flailing, perhaps unable to swim, battling the overpowering waves.

We have a responsibility to throw a life-line. How? First, start seeing mental illness like any other illness. Call it what it is—a brain disease. End the stigma. Someone suffering from depression, for example, can no more wish away or snap out of depression than a diabetic can cure his/her disease by thinking positive thoughts. Educate yourself.

 

 

Support those who are waist deep. Show compassion. They need care, love, encouragement, support just as much, for example, as cancer patients.

Be there, too, for the caregivers, who feel alone, who work behind the scenes to secure often elusive professional care for their loved ones. In Minnesota the shortage of mental health care professionals and treatment centers, especially outside the Twin Cities metro area, is documented in media report after media report. It’s a crisis situation. Telling someone in a mental health crisis they need to wait six weeks plus for an appointment with a psychiatrist or a psychologist is absurd and unacceptable. We wouldn’t say that to someone experiencing a heart attack. They would die without immediate care. Those waist deep do sometimes. Every day. And it shouldn’t be that way.

I applaud the 15 NHS students and the three artists who created the public art piece in Northfield. Projects like “Waist Deep” shine the spotlight on a disease which has too long been hidden, shoved in the dark corner of silence.

THOUGHTS?

FYI: I’d encourage you to read the book Regular & Decaf by Minnesotan Andrew D. Gadtke and published by Risen Man Publishing, LLC. It features conversations between Gadtke and his friend, both of whom have brain diseases. It’s a powerful, insightful and unforgettable read.

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Event raises awareness of mental health issues with practical help January 22, 2019

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo used for illustration only.

 

I EXPECT EVERY SINGLE ONE of you has experienced the loss of someone you know to suicide. I expect also that every single one of you has been affected by mental health issues, directly or indirectly. That is reality. A reality that today is getting more exposure as we realize the importance of mental health and of helping one another through life’s challenges.

We are not meant to deal with stuff alone. I firmly believe that. No one, no matter how strong they appear, lives free of struggles. So, yeah, that person, that family, who seem to have it all together, to live the perfect lives, well, don’t believe it for a second. Every. Single. One. Of us. Has something.

I’m especially grateful for the increased awareness of mental health issues in recent years. We mostly no longer shush talk on the topic of mental illness. That is a good thing.

In Minnesota, recent attention has focused on the mental health of farmers, who deal with a tremendous amount of stress. I get it. Indirectly. My dad farmed. Stresses of work, weather, finances, crop prices and more loomed always. Add to that my dad’s post traumatic stress disorder from fighting on the front lines during the Korean War and he struggled at times. Except back then such struggles weren’t acknowledged. He’s been gone for 16 years now, too late to benefit from today’s enlightenment.

 

Source: The Galaxy

 

This coming Sunday, January 27, We Walk 4 Life Suicide Prevention and Mental Health Awareness presents a free public educational event with Stories of Hope & Healing. And practical training on Question, Persuade and Refer (QPR), described as “3 simple steps anyone can learn to help save a life from suicide.” CPR for mental health.

Ted Matthews, a rural Minnesota mental health counselor, is the keynote speaker during the 1 – 5 p.m. event at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Gaylord. Two survivors of loved ones who committed suicide will also talk. The high risk for suicide groups of farmers and youth will be the focus of Sunday’s We Walk 4 Life.

I applaud this community effort to educate, increase awareness, open discussion and save lives. Together we can form those personal connections, show that care, refer to professionals who can, and do, make a difference. No one should ever have to go life alone. No matter how alone they feel.

Thoughts?

Please note that QPR training at the Sunday event requires pre-registration by calling (507) 381-4082. Class size is limited.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Opening up about mental health January 3, 2019

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Slowly we are beginning to remove the stigma that masks mental illness. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2018.

 

FOR WEEKS, WE’D PRAYED for Lila*. I had no idea why she needed prayers. But it didn’t matter, pray we would as a church family for this friend who’d moved to another state.

A few weeks later, Lila’s husband returned, alone to Minnesota, to lead a local fundraiser. That morning he stepped up to the microphone after worship services and told us about Lila. She was hospitalized, undergoing treatment for severe depression and anxiety. I could almost hear the silent gasp. That took courage, I thought to myself.

I told Henry* the same when I later hugged him, expressed my concern and offered encouragement. He admitted to struggling with his decision to go public. But we agreed that the stigma surrounding mental health is beginning to lift, that talking about mental health issues is important and necessary. For Henry, a retired educator, his openness about Lila proved a freeing, teachable moment.

We all have much to learn on the topic, including me. Kicking depression is not a matter of simply willing yourself to feel better, to just get over whatever someone thinks you need to get over. It’s much deeper than that. Overcoming anxiety is not as simple as jumping into the deep end of a swimming pool and expecting someone to stay afloat.

I admire Henry’s decision to speak up. Likewise, I appreciate that my pastor publicly acknowledges his struggles with depression. That’s a first for me, to hear a pastor talk from the pulpit about personal mental health challenges. He’s young, of a generation seemingly more open to discussing mental health issues. The more we talk about mental illness, the better for those suffering and for loved ones and others trying to help.

Still, talk only goes so far. Waits can be long to see a mental health professional here in greater Minnesota. If you were having a heart attack, you wouldn’t be told to wait six weeks. If you had cancer, you wouldn’t be told to wait for treatment. A mental health crisis is no less important.

I am grateful to two bloggers I follow—Bob Collins at Minnesota Public Radio (NewsCut) and Penny Wilson (Penny Wilson Writes)—who write often on the topic of mental health. (Click here for a particularly enlightening post by Penny.) They are breaking through the stigma, opening the discussion, pointing out the challenges.

Twice in recent years I’ve stood in a snaking line at a Faribault funeral home to comfort the families of young men who committed suicide. I struggled to find the right words. I expect their loved ones struggle with the what ifs, survivor’s guilt, regrets, but, most of all, an unfathomable pain. Some grieving families are choosing now to go public in obituaries about their loved one’s struggles with depression or other mental health issues. That takes a lot of courage. We often read about a deceased person’s long and courageous battle with cancer. Battles with mental illness are no less courageous. I’m thankful to see this shift in thinking, to see people like Henry step up to a microphone and speak about mental illness.

THOUGHTS?

* Not their real names.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

This has to stop, these shootings July 19, 2017

Positive words posted near a garden in the heart of downtown Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

SOMETIMES I COME across an article and accompanying video so profound that I am moved not to tears, but to sobbing.

Often I read those stories in Minnesota Public Radio blogger Bob Collins’ NewsCut column. He rates as one of my favorite writers for his ability to ferret out those stories that touch human emotions. You won’t necessarily see top news stories of the day featured online in NewsCut. But you will read stories that are deeply human, that elicit thought and emotions.

Sometimes Bob makes me laugh. Sometimes cry. Sometimes shake my head. And, almost always, he makes me think. His stories prompt plenty of reader interaction. Whether I agree with comments or not, I always find them interesting.

On Monday Bob published a story and linked to a video in a piece titled A wellness check by police ends with a son dead. The headline grabbed my attention. But it was the video of a grieving father that twisted my gut and made me cry in the deep sort of painful way that heaves your shoulders and unleashes primeval wailing.

In summary, the Massachusetts man’s 26-year-old son, despondent over a break-up with his girlfriend, holed himself up in his room with his dog and a gun. Police were called as was the SWAT Team. The parents were ushered from their home, the father pleading with police to just let his son sleep and to not over-react. I would encourage you to read the entire story and watch the video by clicking here.

 

I purchased this retro tray at an antique/vintage shop in St. Charles for its simple message. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Admittedly, I came to this story with emotions on edge after the police shooting of Justine Damond, 40, in an affluent south Minneapolis neighborhood late Saturday evening. She called 911 to report a suspected assault in an alley by her home, her family says. The death of this Australian woman, who moved to Minnesota several years ago to be nearer her fiance’, has triggered outrage and world-wide attention. And rightly so. The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is now investigating the shooting of the unarmed, pajama clad Justine. Few details have been released. The police officer who shot Justine in the abdomen has thus far refused to be interviewed. Justine’s death continues to top the news in Twin Cities media.

Nearly every evening I turn on the 10 o’clock TV news to hear of another shooting in the Twin Cities. A drive-by, a targeted victim, a domestic and, yes, more and more, a fatal shooting by a police officer.

All of this leaves me wondering. Why? Why so much gun violence? Why the increase in fatal shootings by law enforcement officers?

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

 

Repeatedly, I hear of the need for more officer training. A recently-passed Minnesota state law requires police officers to receive specialized de-escalation, mental health and implicit bias training beginning in July 2018. In my county, that training is already happening and may have factored into a positive outcome for a 61-year-old local man who last week threatened suicide. He survived his crisis when police responded.

With increased societal awareness and openness, we’re seeing an attitude shift in handling of suicide threats and other mental health related calls to police like the one in Massachusetts. Common sense should tell you not to roll in with an excessive show of force and upset an already struggling individual. Lights, sound, action may work in Hollywood, but not necessarily in reality.

 

Sidewalk poetry in downtown Northfield, Minnesota, carries a powerful message. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2014.

 

We can choose to remain calm, to listen to one another, to be compassionate and caring, whether we are a neighbor, a family member, a police officer or a stranger. I know that’s not always easy in a fluid and tense situation.

But something has to change. Too many people are dying due to gun violence in their homes, in alleys, along city streets, on sidewalks…from Minnesota to Massachusetts.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Raising awareness of PTSD, moral injury & suicide & how we can help March 31, 2017

The veterans of Shieldsville and elsewhere are honored in this “Never Forgotten” memorial. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I WISH I’D KNOWN then what I know now.

How often have you thought that following an epiphany moment? That came for me Wednesday evening during a community meeting and film screening at the Faribault American Legion Post 43 on post traumatic stress disorder and the related topic of suicide.

 

This photo from my dad’s collection is tagged as “Kim, Rowe, Allen & me, May 1953 Machine Gun Crew.” That’s my father on the right.

 

I walked away from the gathering with a new perspective and regrets that I hadn’t thoroughly understood the mental anguish suffered by my Korean War veteran father. He fought on the front line as an infantryman—kill or be killed. As a result, he dealt with life-long issues that greatly affected his life and thus his family, too. He died 14 years ago on April 3.

 

My father, Elvern Kletscher, on the left with two of his soldier buddies in Korea.

 

Now, just days before the anniversary of his death, I gained insight beyond his PTSD diagnosis. I learned of the term “moral injury.” In a separate clip shown before airing of the feature film “Almost Sunrise,” a soldier explained how the realities of war can inflict wounds upon the soul. As I listened, the concept made total sense to me. Here was my dad, armed with a rifle and other weapons, forced to shoot the enemy or die. To take the life of another human countered everything he held to be morally right. I can only imagine how that tore him apart. It would anyone.

 

My dad carried home a July 31, 1953, memorial service bulletin from Sucham-dong, Korea. In the right column is listed the name of his fallen buddy, Raymond W. Scheibe.

 

I recall his few stories of being so near the enemy that he could see the whites of their eyes. “Shoot or be shot,” he told me. I observed, too, the lingering pain he felt in watching his buddy Ray blown apart the day before the Nebraska solider was to leave Korea. I remember Dad’s stories also of Korean children begging for food across a barbed wire fence.

 

My dad’s military marker in the Vesta City Cemetery.

 

Dad was wounded in Korea, struck by shrapnel on Heartbreak Ridge. He earned a Purple Heart, awarded some 50 years after he left the battlefield. While his physical injuries healed, the wounds to his heart, to his soul, remained. He suffered from life-long moral injury, as I see it now.

 

The number 23 represents the 22 veterans and one active duty military individual who commit suicide daily. The goal is to bring that number to zero. Graphics credit: Operation 23 to Zero.

 

I am grateful to the local Legion and Faribault Elks Lodge, specifically to Kirk Mansfield, a strong local advocate for veterans and head of Operation 23 to Zero in southern Minnesota, for organizing Wednesday’s community event. Operation 23 strives to help veterans and to create awareness of PTSD, suicide and more.

 

Promo graphics credit of “Almost Sunrise.”

 

Showing of “Almost Sunrise,” a film that followed two Iraqi War veterans on a 2,700 trek from Milwaukee to Los Angeles, also gave me insights into the personal demons soldiers face upon returning home from the battlefield. It is a touching film that left me crying. The Wisconsin soldiers, as they walked across the country and in follow-up therapy, found personal and relationship healing. They found the strength within to forgive themselves. Only they—not their families—could lead them to that point of healing.

While Wednesday’s event focused on veterans, the information shared can apply to anyone who has suffered from PTSD, whether from domestic abuse or other trauma, Mansfield noted.

In a separate clip from the film, a speaker offered these tips for helping individuals dealing with mental health challenges:

  • Show empathy by listening.
  • Remind the individual that he/she has a purpose in life.
  • Offer to be a mentor.
  • Reiterate how important they are to you. Tell them they matter.

That’s great advice.

 

I photographed this pillow last September when the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall came to Faribult. The veteran volunteering in the MIA-POW tent told me his wife sewed this pillow from an over-sized t-shirt. As the message conveys, we all need to be here for one another.

 

Mansfield challenged those in attendance to take what they’d just learned and help others. So I am, with this story. I have the ability to use the written word to create awareness. When we are educated and aware, then we can begin to help our family members, our friends, our co-workers, our acquaintances via listening, supporting, encouraging and reminding them just how much they mean to us. That is powerful.

 

FYI: To read a story I wrote about my dad, “Faith & Hope in a Land of Heartbreak,” published in the book, God Answers Prayers, Military Edition (page 12), click here.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling