‘Orange Frog’ Initiative passes despite repeated opposition

Attempts by a small, but vocal, group of Isanti County residents to make happiness controversial by equating a mental wellness initiative with religion failed Sept. 1 when the Isanti County Board of Commissioners approved the Orange Frog Initiative from the International Thought Leader Network in a split 3-2 vote.

Commissioners Susan Morris, Terry Turnquist, and Greg Anderson all voted in favor of the initiative, and commissioners Mike Warring and Dave Oslund voted against the initiative due to their concern the $650,000 used to fund the initiative would not be eligible for American Rescue Plan Act money and they thought the funds could be used to provide mental health counselors at the schools or in some other way.

The board was assured that, as far as anyone understood the way in which ARPA funds could be spent, this initiative was one of them.

WHY THE NEED FOR A MENTAL HEALTH INITIATIVE IN ISANTI COUNTY

Isanti County Public Health Community Services Supervisor Sarah Motl shared a presentation with the board regarding mental wellness and health of county residents, taken from community health assessments completed in 2018 and 2019, and regional surveys completed with Pine, Isanti, Kanabec, and Mille Lacs counties in 2015 and 2018. 

Community health assessments, which uses data from surveys taken by students in eighth, ninth, and 11th grades, are statutorily required to be completed every five years in Minnesota to identify and describe factors that affect the health of a community and factors that determine available resources to address those factors. 

“We were glad to see small decreases in individual mental health concerns that we ask about, but we were really disheartened to see that the total for depression, anxiety, and other mental health concerns did increase from 2015 to 2018,” Motl said regarding the regional survey of adults. “Almost 20% of adults reported having difficulty participating in social activities because of mental or emotional health issues.”  

The data included in the presentation was the 2016 student survey data, but since then the 2019 data numbers have been released. Motl looked at that data before the presentation to see what, if any, changes had occurred. 

“Unfortunately the numbers are not great,” she said. 

Some of the findings of the community health assessment include:

18.8% of adults report having difficulty participating in social activities because of mental or emotional health issues

An increase in students from ninth and 11th grade who purposely hurt or injured themselves in the 2016 survey; increase for all three grade-levels in the 2019 survey.

An increase in students from eighth and 11th grade who seriously considered suicide in the 2016 survey; increase in all three grade-levels in the 2019 survey. 

An increase in students in eighth and 11th grade who attempted suicide in the 2016 survey; similar for eighth and ninth in 2019, but increased for 11th grade students in the 2019 survey.

Youth tobacco and alcohol use increased for students in ninth and 11th grade; with Isanti youth tobacco use much higher than state average. The numbers were worse in 2019 for consuming alcohol.

“Then again, 2019 was pre-pandemic, so things probably have changed pretty significantly from the 2019 students doing the survey,” Motl commented. 

She went on to inform the board that a new thing heard through the community health assessment and Minnesota Student Survey was a lack of social connectedness, which came up in different community settings and community groups. She noted that other counties in the state also saw this come up. 

Only 35.7% of youth feel that their community cares about them quite a bit or very much, according to the 2016 survey. In 2019, that number decreased to around 28%, Motl observed. 

There are numerous things that are included on the surveys for the community health assessment, such as obesity, physical activity, public safety, housing, transportation, chronic diseases, aging population, childhood trauma, and much more, according to Motl. However, in looking at the data results, the county found that the top three needs for public health in the county included mental health for both adult well-being and youth suicide; youth substance use with alcohol and tobacco; and, lack of social connectedness.

“As public health, you are also probably very well aware, 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 Leader Network is a really great program that is research and evidence based,” Motl said. “We know that it works. It’s been going on for years. And it can really help with that primary prevention in our community and help address all of those top needs that we found - social connectiveness, mental well-being, as well as substance abuse. It’s, again, that primary prevention that is going to affect so many things downstream, not just making people feel happy, but helping with resiliency and not turning to substances. Helping with truancy in our schools, and really helping with those types of things that we see are issues and have continued to get exacerbated by this pandemic.”

Commissioner Terry Turnquist asked Motl to speak about what they had recently learned from Charity Allen, the chemical dependency counselor from Cambridge-Isanti High School and representatives from several organizations that help people with mental health and substance abuse issues.

Motl explained that Allen saw more referrals, both self-referrals and referrals of family and friends for substance abuse issues that increased dramatically during the pandemic. There wasn’t a big increase in students that were using, but those who did use increased their substance usage. The truancy officer also noted an increase in the number of students who were truant during the pandemic, and mental health professionals in the community saw an increase in depression and anxiety within the community.

COUNTY ADMINISTRATOR MAKES HER CASE FOR THE INITIATIVE

“You can agree or disagree with whether the federal government should have given out all of this money to counties, there are obviously people on both sides of the fence there,” said Isanti County Administrator Julia Lines. “The fact is you’ve been given this money, and if you read this guidance, what they are asking us to do with this money is to identify unique needs in our community and propose something that helps combat the effects of the pandemic for our own people.”

“So, we know, because we have done the work and the research, that our people are struggling with social connectedness; they are struggling with mental health issues,” Lines continued. “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 the social connectedness issue came up a few years ago, there were many discussions and many brainstorming sessions on what can we possibly do to help people with this issue?

“So, that’s the reason we are here today, and the reason that we’re looking at this,” Lines said. “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 help the people 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, being kind to others, and doing those kinds of things puts you in a better, positive mindset, which means you will be healthier, which means you will be happier. 

“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, locked the doors, distanced from each other,” Lines continued. “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.”

 countering INITIATIVE naysayers

Morris stated she grew up in this community knowing that people cared about her. “That just broke my heart that that many kids feel like nobody cares,” she said. “And now we’re down to 28% of the kids feel like somebody cares about them.” 

Lines noted there had been two suicides in the county in the last week, and Morris added there was a murder two weeks prior to the meeting. 

“For those of you who say this is not government’s place. The whole place of public health is how we deal with people in many different junctures in their life, and usually it’s when they are in crisis when they come to us,” Morris said.

She went on to say that she had spent a lot of time researching, reading the information provided to the board by concerned citizens, trying to understand the logic of what the people against the initiative were presenting. 

She also spoken with her pastor extensively about this, she said, noting she was a Christian. He asked her if she felt there was a religious connotation in any of the materials she has read regarding the Orange Frog Initiative, and she said there are none.

However, the controversy this has created has made her look again at the definition of secular humanism and other things those decrying the Orange Frog Initiative were saying. 

“You want to know what was really offensive to me is when the Orange Frog got . . . the Golden Calf. All of a sudden we’ve elevated something, and when you use that kind of imagery, it is so detrimental,” Morris said. “What’s really sad to me, this talks about kindness, helping each other, encouraging each other. There are a lot of communities where this has been done, and there are truly great, positive outcomes.”

She noted in school districts with a lot of negative health things going on and problems with truancy, the program was brought in to train teachers, bus drivers, cooks, or anybody who interfaced with students to teach them to take a moment and acknowledge the student in front of them and encourage them. 

“All of a sudden, this is a real human being that I might have an imprint on their life, and by me being human and connecting with them, I might change the trajectory of their life,” Morris said. “So, how can you take something as innocent and good as that, and the principles that are taught in this, and then to all of a sudden make it like it’s a religion?

“If we can invest some of these federal dollars and it makes a difference in some of these kids’ lives or in this community, then I think we have done due diligence and we’ve done something good,” Morris said. “We haven’t taught a religion, but you know what? As a Christian, I can say that the principles that are taught in this are the principles that I have had in my  whole life, and I come at them from a Christian perspective. But there are truths in this that it doesn’t have to be rooted in a religious connotation to still be a truth. You know, kindness and honesty, encouragement, and all those kinds of things, they cross over those lines.”

Not only can this program help in schools and communities, but churches can take the program and visit with their children and with their families to improve relationships, she continued. 

Turnquist also took time to share his thoughts. “I come from a business background,” he said. “I do know this, is government supposed to make you happy? No, it’s not the government’s role. The government’s role is to try to form a society so we all can work together to get along, I think that’s our role. But the problem is, it’s not our job to make you happy, but it’s our job to deal with you when everything’s gone wrong in your life.”

He explained it’s the government who puts people in jail when they’ve done wrong; it’s the government who takes children away from neglectful of abusive parents; it’s the government who helps those addicted to substances.

“I get so many phone calls, ‘I’ve got all these things going wrong and I need you to talk to the cop or talk to the whatever.’ And it’s like, ‘well, it’s a little late for that. If you talked to me before you made bad decisions, I might have been able to steer you out of their path,’” Turnquist continued. “And I’m not perfect, but whatever. So, I look at this as exactly what Sarah laid out. We are trying to help the problem before it becomes a problem. Is it going to solve everybody’s problem? Nope. Will it solve some? I’m sure hoping so.” 

He noted he’s read the books, taken the classes, seen the data, and seen the positive effects of other places the program has been done. “I’m willing to roll the dice and try. Because doing nothing keeps you on the same path you’re on. And it’s not a good path folks. We see the data. I talk to the people. I’m in the meetings,” Turnquist concluded. “There’s nothing more depressing than going to an out-of-home placement meeting. Yet, we have to do it. We have to try to rally them, and pull them together, and pick up the pieces and get them back. It would be so much easier if they had the tools in the beginning. So, from a business perspective, I would rather try to spend the money upfront. I’m already having to deal with it on this end, and that’s expensive and it’s painful and I don’t even know how productive it is.”

Anderson agreed with Turnquist and Morris. “To me, one of the principle foundations of life is to help each other, and that’s the way I look at this is trying to help each other on a public health perspective,” he said. 

“Is it out of the box? Yes,” he continued. 

Lines assured the board that the program will be evaluated as it moves along to ensure that it is working and make changes if it is not. “This really needs to be a program that’s specific to the community and how the community is responding and how it is being seen as successful.”

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