Northern Michigan Mental Health Care in Short Supply, Community and Care-O-Van Driven to Meet Needs

The pandemic has taken a toll on mental health, for adults and kids, around the United States. In northern Michigan, it’s been a struggle for many parents, for years, to find mental health care for their children.

“Our son had some anxiety and depression struggles a few years ago and I really had a hard time finding a professional to help him deal with that,” says Christine Mageira, a mother with three sons, living in Traverse City. “I knew there were probably other people who were going through something similar.”

She says it became even more stressful as a family when help was hard to find.

“The first ten people I called they were not accepting new patients so we were in a position where it was a stressful situation and I needed professional help,” says Mageira.

Mageira is part of the Facebook group, We Fight for Northern Michigan’s Youth Mental Health, a citizen-led group with a mission to protect kids’ mental health by filling gaps in care and growing community awareness.

Mageira says they are working to normalize the conversation around mental health. She says one in four kids struggle with mental health issues in some capacity, comparing it to the entire junior class at Traverse City West High School, where a movie screening of ‘Do It For Daniel’ showcased one teen’s struggle with depression and anxiety last week.

The need for resources to be shared and care to be provided is critical, according to Mageira. Kitchen For Cooking Therapy

“There’s a need for counselors in the school, for therapists out in the field, to be available to talk to kids and talk to parents too,” she says. “We hope that we can help bring that to our area.”

Another member of We Fight, and actively working to provide care, is Megan Mertaugh-Graber. She’s just opened up Care-O-Van, a mobile therapy office, to new clients.

Care-O-Van was built to help with needs Mertaugh-Graber has seen during her career as a Licensed Master Social Worker.

She started that career in inner-city Minneapolis working on treatment programs for kids 3 to 5 years old, who experienced highly traumatic situations.

Working in largely school settings, it became clear to Mertaugh- Graber, as a professional, that kids needed more, even before the pandemic.

“Regionally here in Michigan, in 2018, a poll was taken [and] 14.4% of youth had planned suicide that year prior to the pandemic,” she says.  “Once the pandemic hit I was witnessing an elevated need and elevated stress.”

The study she’s referring to was published by the Centers for Disease Control.

The CDC also found rates of depression and anxiety increased three times that prior to the pandemic in a study done from 2020-2021. Substance abuse also increased nationally, as well as overdoses and overdose deaths.

“The need was becoming, I think, very transparent and in the face of the public at that point whereas prior we were already experiencing staff storages long waitlists and a huge need prior to the pandemic starting,” Mertaugh-Graber says.

Play Space for Kids in Care-O-VanCare-O-Van is a safe, confidential space that can meet people where they are at, physically but also mentally.

While working to provide support to students in the pandemic Mertaugh-Graber found it challenging to offer that safe space.

“That source of support and confidential safe space just evaporated immediately,” she says. “Tele-health I went on that and transitioned quite quickly to create a relational consistency and some sort of security in a time of so much stress and instability. It only met the needs that I was treating and supporting to a certain level. I was making more reports of neglect and abuse as I was witnessing it within the home setting.”

It drove her to purchase a bus a young couple lived in and renovate it into mobile therapy. It can provide services separate from the school and the home while also offering Mertaugh-Graber a clear space with all the tools she needs to provide support and resources.

“Michigan rates the third highest at having the least amount of behavioral support for youth and adults,” she says. “Where in regards to school counselors, the ratio of school counselors per student is one school counselor for 729 kids which it’s an impossible task. We’re going to be missing our youth.

“There’s already a need not just in our area but statewide,” she adds. “Though Traverse City’s not particularly rural all of northern Michigan lacks a great deal of support and resources.”

Mertaugh-Graber’s case load is now open. She hopes to spend two days a week providing animal-assisted healing and nature therapy at her care farm and spending the rest of her days at schools or care centers.

Join We Fight for Northern Michigan’s Youth Mental Health on Facebook for events for May is Mental Health Awareness Month and for resources.

If you or someone you know is struggling visit here for a list of resources.