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Mental health service providers unite to tackle one of the community’s most pressing issues

When we work together, we can do great things, but for one in five people who will be diagnosed with a mental illness during their lifetime – which, by the way, is more than 61,000 Fox Citians – there’s nothing scarier than reaching out for help.

The unfortunate irony is that the feeling of isolation is one of the most prominent shared experiences of mental illness both around the world and in the Fox Cities. According to a 2015 Fox Valley Community Health Improvement Coalition report, 51 percent of people in Outagamie County do not get the social and emotional support they need, whether because they have no one to talk to, fear social repercussions or are simply unable to find the resources they need. And nationwide, that’s less than 33 percent.

But finding the courage to reach out is the best thing we can do, and fortunately, community outreach is there to help. Many Fox Cities organizations and outreach groups are collaborating in easy-to-access mental health services under the philosophy that, like living with mental illness, we’re best at overcoming tough obstacles when we work together.

“The collaborative nature of the mental health industry here in the Fox Cities really does help us do a better job of breaking down some of that stigma to individuals that need it,” says Maren Peterson, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Fox Valley executive director.

NAMI Fox Valley is made up of knowledgeable staff and volunteers working together to help children and adults with mental illness through several support groups, outreach and community education programs in the Fox Cities. Peer facilitators host over 30 different support groups per month and outreach volunteers reached 17,000 people last year with presentations and community trainings.

Through the many programs NAMI members help coordinate, the unifying factor is that each volunteer and staff member have experienced and learned to live with mental illness themselves.

“Having that empathy of someone who has walked in your shoes and having someone to take that self-stigma away and walking toward that self-recovery journey can help to navigate that process of getting help and helping you see that you are not alone, that there’s not something wrong with you,” Peterson says.

Peterson says NAMI’s biggest success was teaming up with Catalpa Health, a pediatric mental health clinic, and the Hortonville Area School District to bring outreach into schools. Through the Engage, Educate, Empower (E3) program, Catalpa embedded therapists into K-12 Hortonville schools so students can visit therapists during school hours without having to go to a separate clinic. NAMI hosts an in-school peer support group as well as provides mental health education at the elementary, middle and high school levels. In addition, all students are screened for possible mental health concerns.

“[With] the outreach we do in the community, we’re able to increase mental health literacy, get people to learn the language they need to have these conversations as well as to break down that stigma,” Peterson says, “that it’s nothing to be ashamed of. But if we don’t talk about it and we push it out of the way … then we’re not going to be able to get to that mentally healthy place.”

Outreach programs that specialize in mental health are vital to the community, but local businesses and organizations outside of mental health can help too, using their expertise in unique and innovative ways. Take, for example, Gordon Bubolz Nature Preserve in Appleton. Last spring, with the help of Catalpa, Bubolz took advantage of what they do best by providing a unique eco-therapy program on the trails.

“At Bubolz, we see children out here on a daily basis and can see the impact that time outside does for them through exploration and being hands-on with nature,” says Courtney Osenroth, Bubolz naturalist. “Being out on the trails at the preserve allows people to escape for a short time from the pressures of life.”

Bubolz offers three different eco-therapy options. The “Observe Series” encourages quiet observation on different treks in three areas in the preserve. The “Describe Series” encourages nature-themed discussion and conversation. The third series, “Scavenger Hunts”, is designed for hands-on discovery, Osenroth says.

The programs are primarily intended for parents with children or teens, but descriptions are open-ended enough for anyone to participate. Unlike other types of therapy, Bubolz’s eco-therapy is completely self-directed, taking away the stress of scheduling an appointment.

“Families are under so many schedules and pressures these days,” Osenroth says. “This is allowing more freedom for them to come out when they have time and gives them the opportunity to immerse themselves back in nature and reconnect as a family while exploring.”

The mindfulness walks are backed by extensive research linking outdoor activity to mental well-being. In 2007, the University of Essex studied a group of people suffering from depression, and 90 percent felt a higher self-esteem after a walk outside, and almost three-quarters felt less depressed.

The Fox Cities offer many more mental health services than most people are aware. Unfortunately, in the past, the amount of research required to find the right services limited the accessibility of many health services, especially when time is of the essence. This gave the Northeast Wisconsin (N.E.W.) Mental Health Connection and United Way Fox Cities 2-1-1 service the idea to create MyConnectionNEW.org, an online resource compiling all the mental health information the Fox Cities has to offer.

“One of the things that drove this project is the stories we hear in the community of people losing hope before they’ve actually found a service they can use,” says Beth Clay, N.E.W. Mental Health Connection executive director.

On the website, viewers can find a list of all available mental health services, events, library resources, legislation details, insurance informations, mental health screenings and emergency hotlines. There is also a search engine for finding topics by category or keyword.

“Because we were able to put the specialized providers all in one place, the public perception might have been, we only have one place that kids can go, but now when they search for kids and mental illness, 42 providers would pop up,” Clay says.

Thanks to this search engine and site analytics, MyConnectionNew is able to continually discover and assess community health needs.

“I’m regularly looking at the traffic on the site to see who doesn’t find the services they were looking for,” Clay says, “and to gather those and what are the articles that the public is looking for in the mental health library so I know what education they want.”

By analyzing user searches, Clay found that people were searching for dual-diagnosis programs for substance use and mental health treatment, but the Fox Cities lacked such a treatment program.

“That actually helped us let one of our local providers know that if they wanted to bring that program to the community, there would be a large market share,” Clay says.

According to Clay, MyConnectionNEW could not have happened without the collaborative efforts of each organization.

“It wouldn’t be possible for any single organization to solve any sort of systemic challenges we have in mental health,” Clay says. “It’s an amazing example for the community what we can do when we work together.”

For Immediate Help

  • Text “HOPELINE” to 741741 on mobile devices
  • Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, 24 hours a day, every day.
  • The Outagamie County Crisis Intervention Unit provides 24/7 crisis mental health services. Crisis Phone counselors can be reached at 920-832-4646 or toll free at 800-719-4418, 24 hours a day, every day.

 

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