Healthy Pierce, St. Croix counties are not without issues, say officials

Posted May 3, 2017

Both Pierce and St. Croix counties have stayed in the Top 10 of statewide health rankings over the last five-year period, but that does not mean they are without concerns.

River Falls and the surrounding area are working together to ensure the healthiness of residents continues to improve. Sue Galoff, director of public health for Pierce County, said she thinks the challenges the community faces now will be the same for the foreseeable future.

“Our three biggest concerns are mental health, obesity and alcohol abuse,” Galoff said.

St. Croix and Pierce counties along with four area hospitals and UW-River Falls are working together on a health needs assessment to determine what action needs to be taken to best support communities in the area.

Together they’ve formed the Healthier Together coalition to develop policies within their own communities.

Both counties continue to rank high in the annual County Health Rankings & Roadmaps reported by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. In the 2017 overall rankings, St. Croix County is No. 3 after Ozaukee and Kewaunee counties. Pierce County ranks No. 6.

“We have strong education, low crime rates and most people have a higher socioeconomic status,” Galoff said of Pierce County.

Of course, UWRF is part of the strong education in the community but there are concerns about the health of students. Alice Reilly-Myklebust, director of the campus counseling and health services, said, “Our environment and policies are the big issue.”

Mental health has been a big cause for concern among college students the past few years on a national level. Every year for the last five years, the number of students developing a mental illness or suffering from a mental health setback has increased, according to the National College Health Assessment.

UWRF collects its own data through that assessment along with a couple of other working groups on campus including the University Advisory Council on Health and Wellness.

“There’s the chancellor’s advisory council on alcohol, tobacco and other drugs, there’s the sexual assault coalition and we also have a physical activity working group and an integration working group,” Reilly-Myklebust said.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, three-fourths of all lifetime mental health conditions begin by age 24. It’s because of statistics like this that UWRF has implemented the different working groups and councils to better prepare and educate its students.

“Again, our environment is a huge factor and the more educated the students are, the better prepared they are to prevent situations from becoming worse,” Reilly-Myklebust said.

Reilly-Myklebust and her team in Counseling and Health Services really like to push for students to do things that work their minds and bodies in a more positive manner than alcohol or drugs.

“We need to get more students involved and open to new experiences like yoga, meditation and pet therapy. Having access is only the first part of the solution,” Reilly-Myklebust said.

However, because the education rate in the area is high, residents are generally pretty healthy across the board. Heather Logelin, director of community engagement for River Falls Area Hospital, said that an educated population directly connects to a healthy population.

“We know that things like smoking is highly correlated to educational status and so we have a really highly educated population, we have a really relatively low smoking rate,” Logelin said.

River Falls Area Hospital is a part of the community needs assessment, but it doesn’t just determine the needs of patients based on the assessment.

“We collaborate with Pierce County and of course we look at the county health rankings, but there is a lot of data that goes into it as well,” Logelin said. Logelin also agreed with Galoff that the three biggest concerns are mental health, obesity and alcohol.

Logelin and Galoff said that they don’t rely heavily on the rankings because they can tend to lag behind by a couple of years, but most of the problems faced in years past are still the ones both counties are still struggling with.

Alcohol abuse and mental health issues still remain in both counties.

“Right now our mental health system is broken,” Galoff said.

The Healthier Together coalition is working on a three-year plan that focuses on making mental health more treatable and more easily accessible to residents of both Pierce and St. Croix counties. After three years, the group will then reassess the situation and move forward with a new plan.

The coalition is looking at programs like the “Make it OK” campaign, which was founded in nearby St. Paul. The campaign’s purpose is to reduce the stigma of mental illness.

Right now, people who wish to seek treatment for mental illnesses in Pierce and St. Croix counties must either travel into the Twin Cities or “a lot of people are just consulting their family doctor and they’re acting as a mental health service,” Galoff said.

Galoff, Logelin and Reilly-Myklebust all stressed that regardless of opportunities, people need to be willing to seek help before it can be given to them. If health care providers don’t know there is a problem, they can’t help anyone.