Dr. Shirshendu Sinha

Dr. Shirshendu Sinha, Mayo Clinic Health System regional chair of psychiatry and psychology

MANKATO — Jennifer Denn sought help for her substance abuse in the past, but the strategies didn't adequately take into account her other health issues.

The Mankato woman, 36, has bipolar-depression and anxiety, and she’s not alone in living with addiction and mental illnesses. Research shows 43 percent of people with addictions have a mental health condition.

Celebrating two years of sobriety this spring, Denn credits a holistic care model with helping improve her health. The approach she benefited from will launch as a pilot program this fall at Mayo Clinic Health System’s Eastridge clinic.

Denn said she’s excited about what it’ll mean for other patients struggling with addiction.

“I think it’s huge and a different approach here in the area,” she said. “I feel hopeful for addicts that are out there struggling.”

A $75,000 grant from UCare is contributing to the effort. Eastridge was chosen in part because it has existing mental health services along with primary care providers.

Despite their relation to each other, mental illnesses and substance-abuse disorders are commonly treated separately. The project recognizes the benefits of treating them together, said Dr. Shirshendu Sinha, the health system’s regional chair of psychiatry and psychology.

“We know from the research that if you actually try to do more comprehensive care, we’ll have better outcomes,” he said. “And also the care will be more cost-effective.”

He said patients with both conditions otherwise tend to visit the emergency department more often for care. They also have longer hospital stays on average.

Denn described her life in active addiction as “chaotic.” Opioids were her drugs of choice for 11 years, but she also turned to methamphetamine and benzodiazepines.

"I’d wake up and my first thought was how I was going to get high or how I was going to get my pills,” she said. “Pretty much my whole day was planned around how I was going to do it.”

She used the drugs to numb her anxiety and depression symptoms. Sinha said this type of behavior is common among patients with substance-use disorders.

“Sometimes they use those medications or substances to mask the symptoms because they never really had a diagnosis, or when they have received addiction treatment, nobody paid attention to mental health,” he said.

Once Denn was referred to Sinha, he helped guide her through a 30-day inpatient program at Tapestry in St. Paul. She next came back home to outpatient treatment at House of Hope.

Denn noticed the difference between her previous doctors’ approaches and Sinha’s. The dual-treatment strategy appealed to her, although not at first when she was still in active addiction. She came around, bought into it, and said she’s reaped the benefits since.

“(Sinha) knew the addiction part as well, so I just think for me, I needed somebody like that,” she said.

While the pilot will open similar care up to more patients, Denn continues to meet with Sinha every two months. The appointments aren’t just about medication management but also a check on how her sobriety is going. He’ll ask about any cravings and whether she’s still in touch with her support groups and sponsors.

“Sometimes he can be my therapist, too,” Denn said. “We don’t just talk about medications; we talk about my life.”

Denn has much to talk about in life these days. She said maintaining sobriety through the help of her care team allowed her to get her own apartment and start building a relationship with her 7-year-old daughter.

“That just gives me hope, that if I continue to stay sober and continue to keep my mental health in check, good things are going to happen,” she said.

Follow Brian Arola @BrianArola

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