Despite what you may have been told, mental illness is treatable. But it can’t be done alone. Collaboration among all types of stakeholders, including the community, is imperative. From hospitals and housing agencies to the justice system, care providers and beyond—if we want to increase mental health awareness, break stigma and help those struggling access treatment, whole community engagement is critical.
I live in North Carolina, where more than 500,000 people receive mental health care each year. And as a community engagement specialist for Cardinal Innovations Healthcare, I have witnessed firsthand how empowered communities can significantly help those with mental illness or those in a mental health crisis.
Mobilizing community service organizations, such as faith-based organizations, social service agencies and food pantries, is key to helping individuals find and receive the unique mental health services and assistance they need. These organizations can also activate other community stakeholders, such as law enforcement, school systems and emergency medical services, to build the positive support system that’s so essential for mental health care.
To build this kind of empowered community united around mental health care, we must first effectively educate organizations to better address mental health issues. One program in particular that helps do this is called Mental Health First Aid (MHFA). I teach this eight-hour course in my area and it has helped North Carolina’s community organizations immensely.
The Impact Of Community Care
In MHFA classes, people get a better understanding of how to recognize and offer initial aid to someone who may be experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis (or are in an escalating panic situation). Attendees are shown how to ask if a person is distressed, and how to intervene on their behalf. Instructors explain that attendees should react to their instincts if they think something is wrong: You do not have to be a doctor or specialist to help people get the mental health care they need.
That being said, MHFA courses also spell out a clear, five-step action plan to help individuals in crisis connect with the right professionals and peers. The course also covers any community resources available, as access to care is a crucial piece of the puzzle. All the training in the world will have little impact if the person in crisis never accesses mental health care.
In addition to preparing individuals to address mental illness, programs like MHFA can also deepen the integration of care among various community agencies that serve people with mental illness. In North Carolina, for example, several agencies have added MHFA courses to their new-hire curriculum, making it part of the skillset needed for the job. Some examples include:
- The Chapel Hill Police Department– includes MHFA as part of basic law enforcement training that takes place before any new recruit goes into the field
- UNC Hospital in Chapel Hill– trains volunteers as part of a program designed to support individuals with mental illness who are waiting for treatment in the emergency department
- Alamance Community College– integrated MHFA as an added training to their detention certification course for people training to become a detention officer.
Programs like MHFA that provide direct, in-person training and engagement are the first step in strengthening community support networks for everyone, but especially for those with mental illness. This type of support network provides the best chance to avert mental health crises and connect those in need to key resources, opening the door for them to become thriving members of society.
By adopting these kinds of programs and actively partnering with community stakeholders, we can change policies, procedures and mindsets. We can unify neighborhoods, break stigma and make an impact—one community at a time.
Meredith Peffley is a Community Relations Specialist at Cardinal Innovations Healthcare. She was the Women’s Resource Center in Alamance County as the Director of Development and Community Relations. Meredith obtained her bachelor’s degree in Finance and Management from Defiance College followed by a Masters of Public Administration degree from George Washington University. She is also a certified trainer for Mental Health First Aid (adult, youth, veteran and law enforcement), QPR, a suicide prevention training, and is a certified trainer for a GAINS Center’s curriculum “How Being Trauma-Informed Improves Criminal Justice System Responses.” She has trained more than 5,000 community members on Behavioral Health related topics.