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WAITE PARK, Minn. — Like many business owners, Elysia Peterson took a leap of faith opening hers.

But Peterson also knew that Shifting Focus, a mental and behavioral health provider for children and teens, was opening in the midst of a national shortage in mental health providers for children, especially in psychiatry.

Peterson is a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner with more than a decade of experience working in the field. She opened Shifting Focus in July 2019 after working for a large medical provider in St. Cloud. She said she wanted to slow the pace of her work and focus more on her clients. The number of patients she sees is about half what she did before. At Shifting Focus, Peterson is seeing around 200 patients, she said.

She deals largely with children on the autism spectrum, children dealing with trauma and children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Her youngest patient is 4 years old, and her oldest is about 25. Peterson said she is certified to treat patients of all ages, but chose to focus on children.

"There's a lot of moving pieces working with kids, which can be challenging, but the joys are — they far outweigh," Peterson told the St. Cloud Times. "They just have so much joy to them usually. ... It's a lot of fun. I couldn't imagine working with any other population."

Working with children means she dresses more casually and does a lot of playing, approaching challenges or topics in a "back door" way as necessary, with lots and lots of questions.

"Humor goes a long way," she said. "We're always joking and laughing with the kids, and I think that helps."

Adults can often tell you what is going on and how they feel.

With children, "there's a little more detective work," she said.

Peterson said she also holds some open spots for teens and young adults at Terebinth Refuge, a place for survivors of sex trafficking, in case someone needs to make an appointment.

"We are able to then get them in quickly versus waiting months, because if we waited months they would probably go out of our program," Terebinth Refuge Director Cynthia "CeCe" Terlouw said. "They ... would struggle without that kind of care."

Challenges accessing care

– like children and adolescents – it can take even longer.

"When you're really struggling and in a spot of crisis, that's an eternity," Peterson said.

She said some of her patients drive hours to see her.

Peterson has a daughter with some mental health issues, she said, and as a parent, she noticed roadblocks, challenges and frustrations in her daughter's care.

"It just kind of led me into wanting to see if there was something I could do — there was a way I could do it differently, and I just felt that my history gave me kind of a unique look at being able to understand where patients and their parents are coming from," she said.

As a parent, she knows sometimes parents do not feel heard or understood, or that they are being blamed for having done something wrong with their child.

"There's no benefit in placing blame on anyone," Peterson said.

– that coming to see her doesn't mean they did something wrong.

As her business continues, she also wants to grow the number of children she sees, and to eventually open a standalone location.