It would be difficult to overstate Dave Lee's enthusiasm for the Minnesota State Fair.

"As long as I can remember, we've gone to the fair probably multiple times a year," said the director of Carlton County Public Health and Human Services.

In his work, he's also someone who "tends to live, eat and breathe mental health," Lee said.

The two passions came together in his mind two years ago while he was at the fair, Lee said.

"People are in a different place when they're at the State Fair," he said. "People are having a great time. And the idea came: How well would it be received to really focus on mental health?"

Lee approached his colleagues in a work group of the State Advisory Council on Mental Health. He presented the idea to state fair officials and to the Minnesota branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

It was received enthusiastically all along the way. The upshot: On Monday, Aug. 27, will be Mental Health Awareness Day at the State Fair, with displays, entertainment and speakers at Dan Patch Park.

"When this was brought to us, we thought it was kind of brilliant," said Danielle Dullinger, spokeswoman for the State Fair. "The best part of this day is it's mental health awareness. So it's not just about mental health illness, it's about mental wellness."

Knowing more resources would be needed, Lee in February suggested a partnership with Sue Abderholden, executive director of NAMI Minnesota.

Abderholden was instantly on board.

"I think it is a breakthrough moment in Minnesota, and I really do congratulate the Fair," Abderholden said. "I think it's a huge step forward. We loved Dave's idea."

NAMI has had a booth at the fair for more than a decade, Abderholden said, but that came after a couple of years of applying and being denied.

In the first years it was open, people seemed to be afraid to come to the booth, she said. "And now you'd be amazed at how many people come up and they're like, 'Oh, yeah, I have a mental illness,' and, 'What do you offer that could be helpful?'"

One in five people are affected by mental illness, Abderholden said, so it's an issue that deserves a big forum.

Mental Health Awareness Day features one of the most packed lineups of any of the special days. It will include 34 exhibitors, Lee said, and such stage shows as "Fidgety Fairy Tales" from the Minnesota Association for Children's Mental Health; Minnesota musician Adam Levy, who lost a son to suicide; and American Public Media's John Moe, creator of "The Hilarious World of Depression" podcast.

A Native American drum circle will open the day. That's an important piece, Abderholden said.

"When we look at the impact on the Native American community in terms of historical trauma, the suicide rate, opiate addiction, to have them be such an integral part of opening this I think is really wonderful," she said.

Lee downplayed his role in all of this, saying that coming up with the idea was the easy part. The pairing of the Great Get-Together with a great challenge was a natural, he said.

"It seemed like a really good match, a golden opportunity to be able to reframe it in a new light."


On the web

Mental Health Awareness Day will take place Monday, Aug. 27, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. in Dan Patch Park at the Minnesota State Fair. To learn more, visit and click on "2018 New Attractions.'