A push to help communities and workplaces become more understanding of mental illness is taking root in Duluth - with more free employer training beginning this week.

A private survey of 3,000 people conducted by Minnesota-based company HealthPartners showed that 74 percent of Duluth-area respondents (about 500 people) said they were comfortable talking to someone about their mental health - the highest among seven communities surveyed, including Hennepin and Ramsey counties, Red Wing, Stillwater, White Bear Lake and St. Croix Falls, Wis.

"I'd like to think it's partly a result of the work we've been doing as a community to talk about it and lower some of those barriers," said Karly Horn, employee wellness program manager at Essentia Health, who shared some of the HealthPartners survey details.

Essentia Health, St. Luke's, the city of Duluth and more than 40 other organizations have joined together as Northland Healthy Minds to promote and implement the Make It OK curriculum - billed as a low-cost and easy way to open pathways to discussion about mental health, particularly in the workplace.

The city of Duluth trained three-quarters of its more than 1,000 employees during a round of training in 2017, said Angel Hohenstein, the city's wellness coordinator. Another round of training will take place this year, she said.

"It makes it OK for everybody to stop the awkward silence between people and have real conversations about mental health," Hohenstein said.

Throughout the Twin Cities metro area, Make It OK campaigns appear on billboards, buses, radio and television.

But locally, Northland Healthy Minds has adopted a lower-cost approach to implementation, using posters and the spread of employer-based training.

"It's really been grassroots-driven - we're all coming together to work on a common goal," Horn said.

Attendees of training sessions acquire a basic understanding of the Make It OK campaign and how to bring it into their workplaces.

Make It OK training doesn't take more than a half-hour, and is easy to implement, Hohenstein said. She described city of Duluth supervisors as "very supportive." The city implements it in small work groups using a straightforward PowerPoint.

"It's not mandatory, but it's something we really want to make sure as many people as possible are a part of the conversation," Hohenstein said.

St. Luke's hospital saw the positive impact of Make It OK when it implemented the program last May during lunch-and-learn settings, including at its outlying clinics.

"There was a very positive shift at the end of the campaign," in overall staff comprehension of mental health, said Stephanie Cotton, St. Luke's onsite wellness coordinator.

St. Luke's employees can sign a Make It OK pledge.

"One of our goals is to help reduce stigma of mental illness," Cotton said.

Sources for the story said it's particularly important for supervisors and their coworkers to be able to discuss things such as stress reduction and signs of mental fatigue. Employees learn ways to identify when they're not taking care of themselves; supervisors are taught to identify signs of mental stress, and nonjudgmental ways to address what can be difficult topics.

In the HealthPartners survey, 60 percent of Twin Ports respondents said they knew a family member or close friend with mental illness, Horn said. Also, 16 percent of Duluth respondents had heard of the Make It OK program. The average was 13 percent, ranging from Stillwater at 9 percent and St. Croix Falls with the top recognition number at 17 percent.

The most common way people surveyed heard about Make It OK was through their employer, Horn said.

Free training sessions for employers begin Wednesday in Duluth and will be held throughout the Twin Ports in April. Attendees are taught a basic understanding of Make It OK and provided a free toolkit to help train and market the program. Last year, Northland Health Minds trained more than 30 Make It OK ambassadors. The goal is to continue to add new member businesses and organizations to the Northland Health Minds coalition.

Breakout

Free mental health awareness trainings

Make It OK employer trainings:

• Wednesday: 11:30-12:30 p.m. at Public Safety Building-Training Room (2030 N. Arlington Ave., Duluth, 55811)

• April 3: noon to 1 p.m., Government Services Building, Lake Superior Room (320 W. Second St., Duluth, 55802)

• April 5: 5-6 p.m., Denfeld High School (401 N. 44th Ave. W., Duluth, 55807)

• April 8: 5-6 p.m., Essentia Health-Superior, Community Room (3500 Tower Ave., Superior, 54880)

There is no charge to register and participate. Space is limited to 40 participants. Register at northlandhealthyminds.org/employers.