Pulling back the veil: Outgoing, incoming CEOs of Washburn Center for Children talk advocacy efforts

A room at the Washburn Center for Children is just one place where the center provides care for kids. Much of their services take place in homes and schools. (Submitted photo)
A room at the Washburn Center for Children is just one place where the center provides care for kids. Much of their services take place in homes and schools. (Submitted photo)

By Sean Miner
Sun Current Newspapers

One in five Minnesota children will experience mental health challenges at some point during their childhoods — but only one in five of those will get the help they need.

That’s according to Twin Cities-based Washburn Center for Children, which cares and advocates for children’s mental health needs. The center has locations in Brooklyn Park, Minnetonka and Minneapolis, as well as partnerships with school districts in Eden Prairie and Bloomington.

Steve Lepinski has been at the helm of the Washburn Center for a full 30 years, but as of March 1, he’s stepping down. He’ll pass the baton to Tom Steinmetz, the nonprofit’s current chief operations officer.

The changing of the guard provided a chance for Lepinski and Steinmetz to note how far children’s mental health care had come in the state during the past several decades.

Awareness & understanding

Lepinski said that increasing awareness of children’s mental health problems was one of the key advances that had been made during his tenure as CEO at Washburn.

“We’re pulling back the veil and helping people understand the issue and the impact it has,” said Lepinski. “We have kids who are unhappy, families who are very stressed and kids who are failing because of mental health issues.”

Not only is the public, he said, more aware of mental health issues in general, but advances have been made on the clinical side as well. That’s led to better practices throughout the industry, which Lepinski said Washburn had incorporated into their work.

“Over 15 to 20 years, we’ve gotten much stronger clinically,” said Lepinski. “There’s been a lot of new knowledge, new awareness, evidence-based practices … we’ve not just paid a lot of attention to it, but we’ve been able to incorporate that into what our staff do, and be stronger as an organization.”

A particularly key development in the field, he said, has been the increased connection between physical and mental health.

“There’s a lot of talk and a lot of focus on better integrating mental health and physical health,” said Lepinski. “Historically, these have been pretty separate.”

Even more specifically, said Lepinski, advances have been made in our understanding of children’s mental health.

On that front, Sue Abderholden of National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota, a long-time partner of the Washburn Center, agreed.

“There’s been a lot more focus on mental health in children than there ever was before,” said Abderholden. “Fifty percent of mental illnesses start before (age) 14. In terms of trying to deal with mental health, if we wait until they’re adults, we’ve waited too long.”

There are a whole host of difficulties that present themselves in promoting mental health in children, however — challenges even past those facing adults. Abderholden noted that caring for children’s mental health necessitates a focus on the family as much as on the individual.

“It’s a bigger caregiving issue,” she said. “With adults, we tend to look at employment and such. With children, it’s, ‘How do we help them make friends, do well in school and have the skill to deal with things?’”

Complicating, too, is the pace of change in a child’s brain. Abderholden pointed out that appropriate therapeutic responses vary wildly for an 8-year-old versus a 13-year-old.

The development a person undergoes in the first two decades of their life can make it harder for parents to know when something is wrong, too.

“If you’re a first-time parent, you’re not sure, necessarily, what’s developmentally appropriate,” said Abderholden. “There’s just a lot more complexity, in a sense.”

Bringing care to the patient

According to Lepinski and Abderholden, increasing access has been paramount in the advancement of children’s mental health in the state.

Toward that end, Washburn provides mobile and in-home services to help bring care to families who need it, where they need it. They’ve also partnered with the Minneapolis, Eden Prairie and Bloomington school districts to bring mental health services to the schools themselves.

“We developed a model, piloted originally within the Minneapolis schools, putting clinicians directly into schools to improve access,” said Lepinski. “We started to find it to be very effective.”

That direct access helps families, easing transportation and time burdens. Past those important individual benefits, Lepinski said that the program had helped school staff members better recognize signs of possible mental health issues.

“It really changes the culture of the building, as teachers interact with therapists on a day-to-day basis,” said Lepinski. “There’s an increased sensitivity to what it might look like if a kid has experienced trauma. Sometimes, it’s easy to think of it as behavioral, instead of thinking, “I wonder what happened to this child that they are acting this way.’”

That partnership has existed at Eden Prairie Schools for almost a decade, according to Mary Waters-Cryer, director of related services at the district. She noted that the therapists from Washburn were well-integrated into the school’s staff, attending meetings with educational staff as needed.

She emphasized that addressing children’s mental health issues has had noticeable academic benefits, past the obvious benefits to each child’s wellbeing. Anxiety, depression and other issues can significantly affect a child’s ability to learn and work, she said.

“When kids aren’t well-regulated themselves, their brain does not have the capacity to learn and take in new information,” said Waters-Cryer. “Once they have support, and people who understand what they need, who help them learn coping skills … they start to bloom both academically and socially.”

She noted the value of having therapists on-site for student access.

“It’s a huge need, and we’re seeing more and more kids coming to school, younger and younger, with trauma and all sorts of mental health needs,” said Waters-Cryer. “Knowing that their therapist is there in the building to help them if they have a crisis lowers their anxiety, too.”

Always more work to do

Despite improvements in understanding and care, there is, as Lepinski and Abderholden noted, always more work to do. For Steinmetz’s part, taking the reins in a matter of weeks, he plans to more or less stay the course for Washburn.

“I am tremendously excited and grateful,” said Steinmetz, on being named the CEO-to-be. “When I look at the broader progress we’ve seen in children’s mental health, and everything we’ve been able to accomplish here at the Washburn Center over the last 20 years, I think we’re in an incredibly strong and hopeful, resilient place.”

He identified a few areas of focus for the center’s future, among them increased integration between physical and mental health care services, the expanded use of evidence-informed treatment and an increased commitment to culturally diverse and responsive practice.

Having spent some two decades himself at the center in different roles, Steinmetz is no stranger to the task at hand.

“Looking back over the last several years, one of the areas we really have focused on is improving access to services for children and families,” said Steinmetz. “We’ve really worked hard to be able to break down access to barriers for families and make it easier and more convenient for them to get help when and where they need it.”

He noted the work that Lepinski had done for children’s mental health in the state.

“Steve has been very instrumental in keeping that focus, and guiding the agency along that path, and my intention and commitment is to really maintain that focus,” said Steinmetz.

Abderholden, too, noted Lepinski’s contributions to the field.

“I have worked closely with him all these years,” she said. “He really is a gem. He’s definitely been a visionary in the area of children’s mental health.”

Lepinski expressed utmost confidence in his successor’s ability to carry on that vision.

“We’re at the point to build on what we’ve done to move on, to the next steps and next challenges,” said Lepinski. “I think Tom is an excellent choice … to carry on that kind of work.”

For more information, visit washburn.org, or namihelps.org.

Contact Sean Miner at [email protected]