Reimagining Mental Health & Well-Being in Community

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Reimagining Mental Health & Well-Being in Community

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As part of our Reimagine Health series and in honor of BIPOC Mental Health Month, our Program Officer Tina Ramirez Moon talks about the importance of centering mental health and wellness in our work as our region navigates the challenges brought on by the pandemic. She shares what we heard from grantee partners earlier this year about dealing with the vicarious trauma, stress, and burn-out of their staff and how philanthropy can work with community to reimagine mental health and well-being.

Listen to or read her blog below.

The featured image was created in collaboration between William Estrada and Dr. Patricia Nguyen & Axis Lab. William is a local educator and artist based in Chicago whose teaching and art address inequity, migration, historical passivity, and cultural recognition in historically marginalized communities. Dr. Nguyen is the Founding Executive Director of Axis Lab, an arts and architecture community organization based in Uptown, Chicago that engages in arts, educational programming, and other multidisciplinary approaches to advocate for ethical development for immigrants and refugees.

The pandemic has deprived us all of the physical presence and social connection that could otherwise serve as protective factors to the trauma of this past year. No one has been immune to challenges and change. Navigating them, however, has been harder on some communities than others due to COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on BILPOC (Black, Indigenous, Latinx and People of Color) communities. Many of the communities in our region bore the brunt of the pandemic, given the systemic issues that intersect with mental health, including the legacies of racism and anti-Blackness that contribute to economic instability and long-standing health disparities. Our communities have also been subject to widespread state violence, which all too often happens in our own backyard. Altogether, this erodes an already precarious foundation of trust between BILPOC communities and institutions across health, education, and civic sectors.

 

Now more than ever, well-being matters. Although we tiptoe towards cautious optimism as states re-open, people continue to struggle with mental health issues due to COVID-19 related health concerns, economic uncertainties, unstable housing, food insecurity, and more. Nationally, one in three COVID-19 survivors is diagnosed with mental health conditions. According to the Voices of Child Health in Chicago report, 44% of young children experienced an increase in mental or behavioral health symptoms compared with before the pandemic – unsurprising given the uptick in isolation youth have faced due to increased screen time and less time with peers, coupled with the COVID-19 related challenges faced by their families and communities. In a recent piece in The Daily Herald, Kimberly Knake of our grantee partner NAMI Metro Suburban reminds us why and how we need to support youth well-being as we move towards recovery. 

Now more than ever, well-being matters…people continue to struggle with mental health issues due to COVID-19 related health concerns, economic uncertainties, unstable housing, food insecurity, and more.

Given that the pandemic has sent our collective nervous systems “into an overdrive from which they’ve never retreated,” we can clearly see how more than a year of loss, uncertainty, and grief has changed us. For this and many other reasons, we at Healthy Communities Foundation pause to consider what we can do to radically reimagine mental health and well-being in the context of community in our region. 

 

Prioritizing People: Insights from Grantee Partners  

 

Earlier this year, we heard that mental health concerns affect many, if not all, of our grantee partners. We know staff have supported individuals and families in heroic ways and also experienced high rates of vicarious trauma and personal risk in frontline or essential positions. For many who live and work within the region, our communities’ issues are our own. People lost peers, family members, their livelihood, and more. Our conversations with grantee partners affirm that mental health and well-being is and will continue to be a high priority for organizations and communities alike.

Studies also show thatstress, burn-out, and mental health concerns were on the risein the social impact sector even before the pandemic, which frequently contribute to high staff turnover and lower productivity. This, in turn, can impact an organization’s ability to deliver on its mission – not just with its “bottom line” but also in how it operationalizes its organizational culture and values.

 

I want to share a few themes we heard from our partners, which are outlined in our recently released community partner insights report, “Reimagining Health and Wellness: Building an Equitable COVID-19 Recovery with Community. 

1. We must prioritize the well-being of people doing the work.

Grantee partners that focus on providing quality health services, particularly organizations that are community-based and BILPOC-led, overwhelmingly shared their concerns for the mental health and well-being of their staff. From my own experience, I know the challenges that community-embedded nonprofit staff can face daily and thus take to heart the ways that philanthropy can do more to foster healthier organizations by supporting the mental health and well-being of people doing the work.

According to Jessamyn Shams-Lau and Leah Wilberding in this SSIR article last year: “we [funders] have never fully equipped [nonprofits] for the everyday work they do, let alone for the kind of work COVID-19 is demanding of them.” Organizations and communities have done so much more this past year than we ever thought possible. We have an opportunity to rebuild infrastructure differently in organizations and communities by centering wellness, healing, and restoration. 

UCAN Staff and community members coming together in North Lawndale.

Grantee partners like the Maywood-based Coalition for Spiritual and Public Leadership (CSPL) and North Lawndale-rooted UCAN embed wellness policies aligned with their organization’s values. For example, CSPL offers spiritual retreat days alongside PTO, so staff can replenish and recommit to their sense of purpose. Through the POWER Project, UCAN offers extensive, targeted mental health supports for staff most vulnerable to vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue, and burnout.

These are just two examples amidst many others that have developed wellness policies to be more flexible and attuned to their staff’s circumstances.

HCF President Maria Pesqueira attends NAMI Metro Suburban's ribbon-cutting ceremony for new The Living Room in Summit.

2. We need to center culturally affirming care, including language access, in behavioral health services.

We heard from multiple providers, particularly those in community settings, that bilingual mental health clinicians are hard to come by. Waitlists were high pre-pandemic, and more people than ever are seeking services. Many clinical internship programs pressed pause last year, and programs with field requirements can often be out of reach for students also navigating other roles such as employment or caregiving for family members. It has also been challenging for organizations to retain licensed clinical social workers, who often leave community-based positions for more competitive pay in private settings. Philanthropy and the behavioral health field would be remiss to ignore the opportunity to get ahead of this systemic issue by addressing ways to support and sustain bilingual practitioners in community-based settings.

Despite a season of shrinking services during the pandemic, some grantee partners have been able to open satellite offices that aim to expand mental health access for suburban residents, such as Erie Neighborhood House in Berwyn and NAMI Metro Suburbans new bilingual Living Room in Summit.

3. We could reimagine creative, community-led solutions of what mental health can look like.

We recognize that mental health and well-being go beyond the four walls of a clinical setting. BILPOC communities often have more limited access due to historical distrust of health systems, the stigma of seeking services, and/or other barriers such as transportation, cost, and whether providers offer culturally affirming services and spaces. There is work to do to expand access to affordable, high quality, culturally affirming behavioral health services, AND there is work we can do to rethink new and existing pathways for people to take care of their whole selves.

People are turning to more accessible therapy services and resources, for example, through social media tailored to BILPOC individuals navigating cultural and identity issues. City Bureau has curated the series How a Community Heals to amplify the stories of Chicagoans who cultivate collective spaces for community care, mutual aid, mental health, and healing, given the backdrop of this historic year.

Locally, we know of grantee partners that seek to meet people where they are—literally. Austin-based BUILD recently received funding from My Brother’s Keeper Alliance to retrofit a former shuttle van into a mobile counseling unit to embed supports within trusted programs and bring mental health resources into neighborhoods where transportation, stigma and other barriers might otherwise prevent people from accessing services.

In other pockets of our region, we have heard of many examples of community-based organizations seeking to demystify mental health and reduce stigma by sharing personal stories. Based in Summit, The Warehouse Project and Gallery has worked with local youth to produce a three-part series called the Pandemic Diaries as a way for young people, their families, and their community to reflect on and make meaning of COVID-19’s impact on their daily lives.

Organizations are now moving forward with plans paused during the pandemic to develop comprehensive, community-based wellness hubs like Proviso Partners for Health. PP4H’s model combines economic justice, entrepreneurship for local residents, and wrap-around wellness programs to build community leadership and power towards transformational change.

A community-based health hub strategy session led by Proviso Partners for Health in Maywood.

Shaping a Collective Vision of Mental Health & Well-Being in Our Region

At Healthy Communities Foundation, we know this is a moment for us to reimagine everything. We have heard incredible stories of staff showing relentless commitment to supporting communities, and we know people are tired and struggling. We are leaning into strategies we know work, which, for us, means amplifying relational trust and community-led solutions. We are also taking cues from Funders for Justice who seek to resource wellness and healing justice strategies in communities and movements so that grantee partners have the capacity “to innovate, shift, and resist,” now and for the long term. 

We will continue to ask ourselves, our grantee partners, and communities how we can shape a collective vision to reimagining mental health and well-being in our region: 

      • How can we support the mental health and well-being of local leaders in comprehensive ways – regardless of what role they may hold in organizations or in community – and what does this mean for organizations and communities themselves? 
      • What longer-term implications might emerge about mental health and well-being as we shift to recovery?
      • How can we rethink our educational pathways to support emerging behavioral health practitioners so that we can keep and sustain local talent in our communities?
      • How might we expand on an existing ecosystem of community members serving as local, trusted champions of mental health and well-being – trained as community health workers, peer recovery specialists, or simply just aunties, uncles, cousins, friends who are better equipped to respond to someone in crisis?
      • How can we build individual, organizational and community capacity to reimagine wellness so that all residents can access what they seek, when they seek it, in ways that affirm their whole selves?  

Undoubtedly this has been a year to navigate like none other. The impact of our individual and collective well-being ripples across all relationships – within families, within organizations, within communities. With all the calls towards ‘building back better,’ we recognize the opportunity to embed wellness within all facets of life, and shape organizations and systems to work for everyone.

If this resonates with you, or if something is already happening in your community or your organization, please reach out. We know we may only begin to scratch the surface with this topic, particularly if we continue to silo the dialogue. Mental health and well-being cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach nor fit easily within one program or grant term.

We’re in this for the long haul. 

 

Stay tuned for more stories of how we continue to shape the many paths possible – and necessary – to reimagine mental health and well-being in our communities.

About the Author

Tina Ramirez Moon

Tina Ramirez Moon, Program Offer

Tina Ramirez Moon is a Program Officer at Healthy Communities Foundation with extensive experience in community engagement, workshop facilitation, program implementation, and cultural organizing work. She earned a Master’s degree from the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration and serves on the board for the Alliance of Filipinos for Immigrant Rights and Empowerment. 

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