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FNS Photo by Carrie Snyder Susan Rae Helgeland is the former executive director of Mental Health America of North Dakota.

Helgeland: My work’s not done: Mental health advocate says even in retirement, she will still help others

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FARGO — With a little prompting from her granddaughter, Susan Helgeland got her first tattoo at age 69. She chose a turtle.

When she showed it to Mandan tribal member Cory Spotted Bear while she was in Twin Buttes for a “bridging cultures” session, he told her, “That’s the Mandan symbol for Mother Earth.”

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Fitting, considering Helgeland’s husband, John, says his wife acts as a mother figure to many people.

“It’s just amazing to see her do her thing,” he said. “I’ve never seen somebody who’s a mother in every single way all the time.”

Helgeland, now 71, recently retired as the executive director of Mental Health America of North Dakota.

For 50 years, the Fargo woman worked tirelessly as an advocate for access to mental and behavioral health treatment and services, and, although she’ll be doing it as a private citizen, she doesn’t plan to stop.

“I’m impressed by the fact that she never gave up,” said John Helgeland, a religious studies professor at North Dakota State University. “Her whole thing was keeping on keeping on. Day after day after day, she was there for people who needed her. That’s not something that’s going to evaporate with retirement.”

A voice for the mentally ill

Helgeland’s determination began in 1964 when she went on a “field trip” as a social work student at the University of North Dakota to the North Dakota State Hospital.

There, she was exposed for the first time to people with mental illness and substance abuse issues, and she was shocked by what she saw.

“I was traumatized by the vacant stare of most of the patients, segregation of male and female, smocks for the women and pajamas for the men. I learned that the drugs of choice at that time were Haldol and Thorazine. My thought was that, through no fault of their own, these folks are at the NDSH,” she said.

That experience drove her professional and volunteer life.

The next year, 1965, Helgeland was hired by Gerridee Wheeler of Bismarck as a paid staff member for MHAND to help implement the first mental health and developmental regional centers funded initially by the federal government.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, she worked in Colorado, for Mental Health America of Colorado (MHAND’s Colorado counterpart), two congressional campaigns and one gubernatorial campaign, and as the state public policy director.

She returned to North Dakota in 1989 when Myrt Armstrong of Bismarck hired her as the director of a research project called “Barriers to Employment for People with Mental Illness” for MHAND.

The last eight years of her professional career were spent leading MHAND.

But mental health isn’t the only cause Helgeland’s passionate about.

She’s also president of the Fargo-Moorhead branch of the American Association of University Women and the Agri-Wellness Board, and she works with Planned Parenthood.

A shoulder to cry on

Alice Hauan, Helgeland’s best friend, who also has done work in the mental health field, met Helgeland shortly after she and John moved to North Dakota 25 years ago.

“I kept hearing her name all the time. Then one day I went to a meeting, and she was there. And I said, ‘Oh! I’ve heard so much about you,’ and she said, ‘I’ve heard about you, too!’” the 80-year-old Fargo woman said. “From that time on, we just sort of clicked as good, good friends.”

The friends and colleagues, who are more like sisters, have helped each other weather storms in both their professional and personal lives.

Hauan said Helgeland was one of the most supportive people in her life when her husband died in 2002.

“She was one of those people upon whose shoulder I could really cry on and let things all out. Then her daughter was killed that next year in an automobile accident. She called me that Sunday morning to tell me about it. I was glad I was able to be there for her, too. It’s that kind of friendship,” Hauan said.

Helgeland also has a son, two stepchildren, four grandchildren and four stepgrandchildren.

“My dream is to see my grandchildren grow and see my son become an older adult. I have to see what happens to everybody,” she said.

An advocate for access

She also wants to see what happens to mental health care in the state.

One of the programs she’s most passionate about is the Cass County Jail’s inmate peer support program, made possible by a two-year grant from the Otto Bremer Foundation.

Helgeland said North Dakota’s jails have become, by default, its behavioral health care providers.

“In 1964, there were nearly 2,000 people locked up at the state hospital. Now there are less than 200, and, I don’t know the number of folks with behavioral health issues in our North Dakota jails, but it’s a high number,” she said.

She says peer support is the most effective way to help inmates make successful transitions to life outside bars.

“In my experience with recovery with behavioral health, that is the most effective form of support,” she said. “You meet them where they are; it’s an equal relationship. No one is the boss, no one is the provider.”

When Helgeland talks about mental illness, she equates it to physical illness. Since that first trip to the state hospital, she’s never understood why mental illness isn’t treated the same as physical illness as far as attitudes, access, coverage and accommodations go.

“My feeling was, through no fault of their own, these folks are sick. We don’t do that with other people that are sick,” she said.

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Meredith Holt
Meredith Holt is a Forum features reporter who writes a twice-monthly column on body image, weight loss (and gain), health and fitness. Her topics of interest include mental health, relationships and women's issues. She also does page design and copy editing, which she did for six years prior to joining the features staff in March 2012.
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