La Crosse County is becoming a beacon in the national Campaign to Change Direction, according to the founder of the movement to enlist communities in the quest for mental health.

Since the national crusade was launched on March 5, 2015, and the La Crosse County effort three weeks later, the county has begun to “change the culture of mental health for your community and create a model for replicating it in community after community,” Barbara Van Dahlen told about 100 people at a leadership breakfast in La Crosse Tuesday.

The entire state of Massachusetts is modeling its Change Direction effort in part on La Crosse activities that have enlisted not only health care organizations but also businesses, faith communities, schools and other groups, she said.

“Change Direction is not an anti-stigma campaign because we found out there is a stigma with stigma,” Van Dahlen said. “This is about what you do — yoga, therapy, exercise, or whatever — for your mental health.”

Beyond that is the campaign’s overall thrust to help everybody learn the five signs of emotional suffering — personality change, agitation, withdrawal, poor self-care and an air of hopelessness — so they can recognize them in friends and acquaintances and steer them toward help, she said.

The campaign has enlisted notables ranging from First Lady Michelle Obama and Prince Harry of Great Britain to actor Richard Gere to encourage people to learn the signs so they can help others who may be suffering in silence.

Gere is so passionate about homelessness that he walked the streets of New York City disguised as a homeless man, with people stepping around and past him, not recognizing him or caring about what his plight might be, Van Dahlen said.

Van Dahlen cited her daughter Mira as an example of such awareness and action. Mira happened upon a razor blade in the drawer of one of her high school friends and became concerned that the girl might be considering self-harm.

Mira talked to the friend about her emotional challenges and helped connect her with a counselor, Van Dahlen said.

“That is the power of education … and then it is up to the community to tap into the resources,” of which La Crosse has many. “The critical element is early intervention and prevention,” said Van Dahlen, whom Time magazine included on its 2012 list of the 100 most influential people in the world.

“Kids are social change agents, and we also want kids acting,” Van Dahlen said. “We want them to be able to say, ‘I love you, but you drink too much.’ ‘I love you, but you seem to be angry all the time.’”

People hesitate to talk about mental health issues, although they freely discuss other illnesses, she said.

“Before people knew the signs of heart attacks,” more people fell victim to them, while awareness has led to earlier diagnosis and treatment, she said.

Statistically, 1 in 5 people has a diagnosable mental illness, she said, but a comprehensive survey found that, “If you ask people if they had a mental health challenge in the past year, 1 out of 2 said yes. We need to change the conversation.”

Doing so includes “changing people to think compassionately,” she said. “At least say hi to people. Wherever you have a passion (like Gere does), go there, and it will have a ripple effect.”

Evidence that the conversation may be changing locally because of the campaign came from Mary Mundt Reckase, director of Great Rivers 211, an information, referral and crisis line serving Coulee Region residents 24 hours a day.

“The highest areas of calls are mental health,” Reckase told the broad audience attending the breakfast.

Great Rivers 211 chronicled 5,100 mental health-related calls from La Crosse County residents between April 1, 2015, and March 31, 2016, including 108 potentially life-threatening, suicidal calls and another 362 crisis calls that were not life-threatening, she said.

“That was 50 percent higher than the year before,” Reckase said, explaining that she had tallied spring-to-spring statistics because they’re within the time Change Direction has been in existence and can help gauge the willingness of people to acknowledge the issue.

Although it is difficult to attribute the increase specifically to the campaign, the coincidence is worth noting, she said.

System-wide, including La Crosse and 20 other counties Great Rivers 211 serves, the nonprofit agency handled 8,300 mental health-related calls, including 212 potentially life-threatening.

“We’ve been taking a lot more calls, so we have been helping a lot more people,” she said.

Don Weber, the founder of Logistics Health Inc. in La Crosse and one of the moving forces with Van Dahlen behind Change Direction, said 1.4 million of 22 million veterans in the United States have service-related injuries, including many with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Change Direction evolved in part from Van Dahlen’s Give an Hour, a national nonprofit organization in which she has enlisted more than 7,000 mental health professionals to donate an hour a week to provide services to veterans, Weber said.

“That saved a cost of $15 million in fees,” he said.

“Regarding behavioral health, I’m a very simple person, and I never got to college,” said Weber, who grew up on a farm. “I barely got myself out of high school.”

But under his parents’ careful guidance and his experience as a Marine during the Vietnam War era, Weber said, “I learned that nothing is of greater value than people, and (businesses) should take care of your people and their well-being.

“Behavioral health is not a stigma,” Weber said. “It’s a health issue.”

Sam Van Riper, pricing director at Trane Co. and a member of the Campaign to Change Direction Steering Committee, opened the breakfast program. “We have a saying at Trane that we want this to be the best place to work. With Changing Direction, we think we can make this the best place to live,” he said.

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Mike Tighe is the Tribune newsroom's senior citizen. That said, he don't get no respect from the cub reporters as he goes about his duly-appointed rounds on the health, religion and whatever-else-lands-in-his-inbox beats. Call him at 608-791-8446.

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