With Amberwing opening, mental health care for Northland youth takes giant leap forwardThe wooden, ribbed canoe suspended from the ceiling and the American Indian wedding dress hanging on the wall near the entrance are the first indications that Amberwing is not a typical treatment center.
By: Jana Hollingsworth, Duluth News Tribune
The wooden, ribbed canoe suspended from the ceiling and the American Indian wedding dress hanging on the wall near the entrance are the first indications that Amberwing is not a typical treatment center.
The Amberwing Center for Youth and Family Well-Being, built with $6 million raised through the Miller-Dwan Foundation from more than 1,600 donations, opens Sept. 4. Amberwing will treat mental illness and substance abuse issues in children and young adults up to age 25 for intensive outpatient 15-day periods.
The center opens its doors to the public today with an open house from 5-7 p.m.
“We wanted the first impression to be really strong,” said Pat Burns, president of the Miller-Dwan Foundation. “The goal was to break the stigma of walking into a hospital.”
Demand and waiting lists for youth mental illness and chemical dependency services in the Duluth area led to Amberwing, and fundraising began three years ago for the 25,800-square-foot building.
The sprawling, homelike structure at 615 Pecan Ave. in Duluth is set in a scenic patch of woods, decorated in woodsy greens and browns. The north woods lodge-aura extends to antique snowshoes, a chess table and antler lights in the lobby. Local art can be found throughout the building, which is divided into four wings, each named for an animal: the otter, bear, hummingbird and eagle. Three of the wings are for various age groups, and each has meeting and homework spaces, soft lighting and kitchens. Comfy pillows, chairs and ottomans dot the rooms.
“The goal was to get comfortable furniture in here,” Burns said. “Mental health has been underfunded and under-resourced for so many years. Oftentimes, you go into the mental health spaces and you’ve got the coffee-stained chairs that some other party threw away. The environment has so much to do with how you feel about being safe and opening up.”
In a chemical dependency group room, patients can even write on the walls. They were painted with a product that turns them into giant dry-erase boards so patients’ addiction histories can be charted.
“It’s so the kids can see, ‘Here’s your history. Here’s your pathway. How do you get out of this pathway?’ It’s a very effective tool,” Burns said.
The fourth wing is for alternative therapy, which Essentia Health Duluth has not had space for before. Art, music, sensory, pet and drama therapy all have their place in this wing, which has carefully placed touches of whimsy.
Therapists can not only teach alternative skills but immerse patients in them every day, said Rick Gertsema, clinical supervisor of Amberwing, which is a partial-hospital program.
At Essentia Health Duluth, he said, the partial-hospital program was connected to the inpatient program.
“We still had locked doors,” he said. “We’re wide open at Amberwing. We have snowshoes. We can go for hikes. We’re not in a hospital. That’s part of the mission of decreasing stigma.”
While Amberwing planners started by modeling their project after St. Cloud’s Clara’s House, the Duluth center has unique aspects, including a training space for interns, a parent and family resource room and a community education room. The Miller-Dwan Foundation is paying the salary of a mental health professional to be available free to families needing mental health advocacy, Burns said.
“If they have a concern, they start here,” she said. “If you are a parent and open a phone book, it’s like, ‘Who do I call? What do I do?’ No one has anything like it.”
Amberwing therapists will work with psychology and social work graduate student interns from the University of Minnesota Duluth, the University of Wisconsin-Superior and the College of St. Scholastica. A space has been created for them in the new building.
“It’s a great site for interns,” said Tom Jensen, manager of Amberwing. “It’s developing health-care professionals for a shortage area.”
Gertsema agreed, noting that Amberwing will be an “incredible” recruiting tool.
Another new feature is a parent/child interactive therapy room that allows a therapist to monitor and coach a parent and a young child from another room as they interact. The event is taped so the parent can learn from it.
Amberwing could be considered a national — and possibly international —model as a partial hospitalization program for kids and teens with mental health and chemical dependency issues, Gertsema said. At its peak, the facility can take up to 60 patients. At Essentia, it can serve only 13.
“Having Amberwing will change the landscape of the way kids and families are able to get services,” he said. “Access will be different. We will be able to reach kids who don’t necessarily meet that full criteria: ‘inpatient is in imminent danger to self or others.’”
Therapists expect referrals from clergy, schools, doctors and the county.
“The bottom line is, I think we will save lives,” Gertsema said. “We have extreme gratitude for what the community has done for our kids and our families.”
Jensen said it took a long time to learn how to think big about possibilities for the work they could do with patients because no one could imagine such a community response.
“What an investment,” he said. “We’re anxious to deliver on that promise.”