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A mental health initiative designed to combat the mental wellness impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic will be launching within Isanti County.

During the Isanti County Board meeting Sept. 1, by a 3-2 vote, the board approved a contract with the International Thought Leaders Network to bring the Happiness Advantage/Orange Frog Workshop to Isanti County. Commissioners Greg Anderson, Susan Morris and Terry Turnquist voted for the program while commissioners Dave Oslund and Mike Warring voted against.

The cost to implement the program is $650,000, which will be paid through the county’s American Rescue Plan Act funds. Isanti County is expected to receive $7.9 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds.

Implementing the Happiness Advantage/Orange Frog Workshop has been a source of contention for some Isanti County residents. During recent board meetings, several people have spoken during the public comment session against implementing the Happiness Advantage/Orange Frog Workshop.

The Orange Frog is an educational program based on the work of Harvard University-trained researcher and New York Times bestselling author Shawn Achor, according to the program website.

According to the program website, the parable of the Orange Frog is explained as follows: “Caught between two worlds, Spark was exactly like every other frog in his pond with one notable exception. Spark emerges from a tadpole with a slight but noticeable orange spot. And this orange spot makes Spark feel uncomfortably different. What’s more, Spark begins to make a disconcerting observation; when he does things that make him feel better (and produce more positive results) the orange spots increase. Spark is left with a difficult decision; be normal, which makes him less conspicuous, or continue doing those things that make him happier, more productive and … more orange.”

Isanti County Public Health Community Services Supervisor Sarah Motl explained community health assessments were completed in Isanti County in 2018 and 2019.

“It is something that the Minnesota state statute says that Public Health has to do every five years and it is to identify and describe factors that affect the health of a community and factors that determine available resources to address those factors,” Motl said. “So we collect, analyze and use a lot of data to prioritize the many, many issues in our community and we worked really, really hard to engage the community through many, many stakeholder meetings. We went to many different community organizations throughout the county, parent organizations, and just really got a feel from the community on what they see as the issues in our community.

“We know from national health studies that mental health concerns have just continued to increase significantly throughout the pandemic. Locally, in Minnesota, Goodhue County did a survey recently of their community asking how the pandemic impacted different parts of their life such as finances, mental health and social connections, and those areas. And as was not probably a surprise to anybody, the pandemic has negatively impacted their finances, negatively impacted their connections, negatively impacted their mental well-being, employment, all those things. So we know that these issues have just gotten worse.

“And as public health, you are also probably very well aware that we are chronically underfunded and don’t have a lot of resources to address all these issues that we have to find all the time, so this International Thought Leaders Network is a really great program that is research- and evidence-based — we know that it works. It’s been going on for years. And it’s that evidence base, and it’s based on research, and it can really help with that primary prevention in our community and help address all of those top needs that we found — the social connectedness, the mental well-being as well as substance use in our youth. It’s that primary prevention that’s going to affect so many things downstream, not just making people feel happy, but helping with resiliency and not turning to substances and helping with truancy in our schools and really helping with those types of things that we continue to see are issues and that have continued to get exasperated by this pandemic,” Motl added.

County Administrator Julia Lines said while there are people who agree the federal government should have given out the American Recovery Plan Act funds and there are those who feel the funds shouldn’t have been given, the fact is the county is receiving the funds.

“But the fact is we’ve been given this money, and as we read this guidance, what they’re asking us to do with this money is to identify the unique needs of our community and propose something that helps combat the effects of the pandemic for our own people,” Lines said. “So we know, because we’ve done the work and the research, that our people are struggling with social connectedness. They’re struggling with mental health issues. So this initiative has been explored as a potential option to help with that specific issue, which is an incredibly difficult issue to tackle. In fact, Public Health, when this social connectedness issue came up a few years ago, there were many discussions and many brainstorming sessions on what can we do, what can we possibly do to help people with this issue, and there really wasn’t a good answer. So Sarah (Motl) was invited to the pilot workshop that happened and I was so excited to hear her say that she thinks, from a public health perspective, that this is something that can help with not only that connectedness issue, but the other mental health issues that people are struggling with.

“Is it the government’s job to make people happy? You can debate that too. But the fact of the matter is we have money that we’re asked to (use to) help the people that are struggling. And people are more divided, more angry, more divisive than ever before. So if we can do something that helps people reconnect — and that’s what this is about, it’s about reconnecting, it’s being kind to others and doing those kinds of things puts you in a better, positive mindset, which means you will be healthier, and you will then be happier. So that’s what this is about. It’s about trying to help the people in our community that we know are struggling. Is it a lot of money, yes. But the goal is to help people come out of this pandemic where we’ve been sent home, put on masks, lock the doors, distance from each other. It has had a huge detrimental impact on everyone, so this is an attempt. Is it perfect? Of course not. Is it for everyone? No. And nobody’s going to be forced to do anything they don’t want to do. But if we can provide a service to people that helps lift them out of a dark place, then that’s the goal,” Lines added.

Chair Susan Morris said it breaks her heart to hear data from the recent Minnesota Student Survey that shows only 28% of students in Isanti County feel they have somebody who cares about them.

Morris also said she’s spent countless hours researching the program, talking with her pastor and others about the program, reading and watching materials sent to her from residents against the program, and reading several books and videos on the program.

“I grew up in the church, I know my Bible. I can quote you a lot of Scriptures. There’s nothing in any of this that promotes a religion at all. I can say that totally without reservation,” Morris said.

“This talks about kindness, helping each other, encouraging each other. There’s a lot of communities where this has been done and there’s really great positive outcomes. So kids who were in school districts where there was a lot of truancy and there was a lot of negative health things going on, after they brought this into the school district and they taught the teachers, the bus drivers, the cooks, everybody that interfaced with those children in any way had the training, and it’s like take that moment in time and acknowledge that human being that’s in front of you, and encourage them,” Morris added.

Warring indicated he would rather see the funds being spent on hiring more counselors for Public Health, citing the counselors would be with Public Health for a very long time. He indicated he felt the Happiness Advantage/Orange Frog Workshop might last a couple of years, but then would ultimately end. Oslund said he agreed with Warring’s perspective.

Part of the program will be to formally train 1,000 people in the county on the program, including the Isanti County community coalition, Isanti County government coalition, Cambridge-Isanti and Braham schools coalition and Allina Health coalition. Another part of the program will be to reach 2,000 students and families through the schools. Lines said specific organizations within the community who feel they would be benefit from training on the program would be offered that as well.

Part of the program will also be done through pilot workshops, community events and other community outreach and educational activities.

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