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Fall 2013, Volume 21, Number 4

Illustration of a community with houses, buildings, parks, and people. The words "Community Conversations" are in the foreground.

Community Conversations on Mental Health Seek Solutions

SAMHSA's Toolkit for Community conversations About Mental Health Now Available in English and Spanish

In response to President Obama's call to action for a national conversation to increase understanding about mental health, the first Community Conversations were launched in July in Sacramento, CA and Albuquerque, NM. The conversations rely on partners and communities who organize the events to counter misperceptions about mental illnesses, identify innovative community-based solutions to mental health needs, and promote recovery and healthy communities. To support the large, facilitated events, SAMHSA developed a toolkit for planning and facilitating discussions in up to ten communities, but the guides and information brief are being adapted and used by other groups and communities as well.

At the June White House National Conference on Mental Health, the President announced that conversations about mental health would be taking place across the country. The conversations are aimed to reduce concerns about openly discussing mental illnesses in the community, improve access to services (especially for adolescents and young adults), and set an agenda of changes that will improve and complement existing local resources.

Following the White House event, dialogues were planned in ten cities around the country. The two July 20 Community Conversations in Albuquerque and Sacramento were organized by Creating Community Solutions Exit Disclaimer (CCS), under the leadership of Everyday Democracy Exit Disclaimer and America Speaks Exit Disclaimer, and supported by the National Alliance on Mental Illness Exit Disclaimer, United Way Exit Disclaimer, and many other community and philanthropic organizations. These communities identified mental health issues that need facilitated development and change, and established resources to start working on the next steps.

"The President challenged us to bring mental illness out of the shadows," said Pamela Hyde, J.D., during remarks to the King County Bar Association earlier this year. "We need to learn how to recognize the symptoms of mental illness, especially signs of crises and especially in young people. We need to stop whispering, speak out, and speak up."

In the days leading up to the Community Conversations, local facilitators were trained and oriented to the discussion material. Both cities used portions of SAMHSA's toolkit to help plan and facilitate the dialogues. Participants were provided with suggested topics to cover, including beliefs and perceptions about mental health, addressing mental health, barriers, community interest, outreach, and more. Each table had two facilitators—one to stimulate discussion and the other to take notes.

The discussion in Sacramento included Mayor Kevin Johnson and Congresswoman Doris Matsui (D-CA).

The discussion in Sacramento included Mayor Kevin Johnson and Congresswoman Doris Matsui (D-CA), several SAMHSA Regional Administrators, and representatives from the National Football League (NFL). Community partners worked hard to recruit young people to the event through social media and it paid off. Thirty percent of the 350 attendees were between the ages of 14 to 24, providing important perspective on the challenges youth and young adults face. Approximately 48 percent of those in attendance had direct experience with mental health issues and 66 percent had a family member or friend with mental health concerns. Participants identified some of the key challenges including bullying, prejudice and discrimination, cultural bias, substance abuse, and involvement with the criminal justice system. They also discussed possible community action steps, such as including youth in planning and implementing changes, conducting more forums on mental health, increasing public awareness, and recruiting new mental health champions. The conversation in Sacramento was planned as a one-time event with follow-up to address community needs in the months ahead.

In Albuquerque, the dialogue was the starting point of a series of discussions that will take place throughout the fall. The event was organized by outreach teams that concentrated on diversifying attendance—48 percent of the participants were Latino/Hispanic and 69 percent indicated more than one race. Approximately 17 percent of those at the event were young adults (15 to 24 years old). Individuals with personal mental health concerns made up 53 percent of the participants, and 71 percent indicated having a friend or family member with mental health concerns. Participants proposed a number of helpful strategies.

Mayor Richard Berry said, "I intend to tell the President that we are setting the bar high here, and we are developing a roadmap forward on this important issue. Albuquerque is poised to lead and we will deliver meaningful results." Participants recommended increasing awareness (including teaching mental health in schools), strengthening existing resources, changing policy, improving prevention, securing needed funding, and using social media to reach young people.

The sites plan to provide data and final reports to all partnering organizations. Preliminary outcomes, resources, and information about other Community Conversations are posted on the Creating Community Solutions Exit Disclaimer website. The outcomes from Sacramento and Albuquerque will be used to adjust the agenda, materials, and process so that future events will be even more robust and successful.

Additional dialogues are scheduled as part of the facilitated ten conversations throughout the country, including a few this fall in Kansas City, MO, Birmingham, AL, Washington, DC, and Akron, OH. Individuals and communities are encouraged to learn more about the events, participate, and share resources widely as part of the collective effort to improve mental health awareness and access.

The Toolkit for Community Conversations About Mental Health is available in English and Spanish and can be useful in a wide variety of settings. For more information about Community Conversations, visit MentalHealth.Gov.

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