About the Collaboration
In 2007, Kentucky launched a Faith-Based Prevention Enhancement Site (PES), one of six state-wide PES’ originally created under SAMHSA’s SPF SIG* program and currently funded by the Kentucky State Block Grant. The purpose of the site is to provide alcohol, drug, and behavioral health prevention resources to the state’s broad range of faith communities. The site is operated through the Communicare Regional Prevention Center, and currently managed by Karen Hall, a faith-based prevention expert who provides targeted technical assistance to faith groups interested in engaging in substance use and related prevention efforts.
Over the past eight years, the Faith-Based PES has established relationships with more than 700 representatives from across the state’s Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, and Hindu communities. Hall, supported by a cadre of prevention professionals, provides webinars, in-person trainings, and customized support designed to help faith leaders integrate substance use and misuse prevention into their work, identify at-risk community members, and create safe spaces that encourage open communication about substance use and mental health.
The foundation of these services is an annual faith-based conference. In its fourth year, the “Empowerment for Prevention” conference recently brought together 200 participants from across Kentucky to discuss how faith communities can integrate culturally competent language, stigma reduction, and evidence-based programs into their prevention efforts. Newer initiatives, such as “Life Jackets” are designed to change the public’s perception of faith communities, and to encourage people of faith to offer non-judgmental help through effective listening and referral skills. “When a person feels like he or she is ‘drowning’ from effects of addiction or mental illness, we want the faith community to be the place he or she turns to for help,” says Hall. “Faith partners can provide the support needed to keep them “afloat.”
Elements of Success
Find Natural Helpers
Hall attributes much of her success connecting with the faith community to the fact that they are “natural helpers:” ready and willing to lend a hand, already working with hard-to-reach populations as part of their regular community-building activities, and known and respected for doing so. According to Hall, “Faith communities bring many assets to a partnership, including a vested interest in their surrounding neighborhoods and established access to congregation and community members. They often assist members with their health needs, focus on youth development, and serve as leaders for positive community change. Preventing substance use and misuse is a natural fit with these values.”
When reaching out to faith communities, Hall highlights this alignment of values, underscoring how prevention is really just an extension of work they are already doing. “Prevention is simply taking an interest in another person’s life,” Hall told participants on a recent PES webinar. “Isn’t that what all people of faith do?”
Prioritize Outreach Efforts
When Hall first assumed her manager role, she inherited a partnership database of fewer than two hundred contacts and struggled to figure out how to prioritize her outreach efforts. She eventually decided to focus on those potential partners who were most interested in the PES’ efforts. Initially, these were the African American churches—particularly those in the Louisville and Lexington areas. Faced with the reality of violence, suicide, and substance use in their communities, they recognized the value of prevention and were ready to get involved. This small group of dedicated collaborators served as the foundation for the site’s early work. They told Hall, “This is really a problem in our community; I think we can reach out and do something.”
Build Strong, Personal Relationships
Hall’s list of contacts quickly grew, due in large part to her commitment to building personal connections. “I get on the phone and take notes on what people are telling me—on their families, their church—so I know how to reconnect when I see them next.” This individual-level relationship building is consistent with how faith leaders build community among their members. Hall endorses this approach because it is familiar to faith groups and sends an important message: that you are interested in them as people, and not just in what they can do for you.
Hall’s talent for developing personal relationships was clearly on display during the registration period for the site’s 2015 annual conference. While an electronic registration option was available, more than half of the participants preferred to call and speak with her personally to communicate their enthusiasm for the conference and secure their spot.
Tailor Your Messages
With a spectrum of religions represented among her collaborators, Hall has learned to tailor her prevention messages so they align with the values and beliefs of each group. “Karen does a good job recognizing that she has to ‘take prevention to the faith community in a way that they can hear it,’” says Patti Clark, a former Program Administrator with the Kentucky Department for Behavioral Health. For example, when Hall is working with a Hindu partner, she connects her prevention messages with a key tenet of their faith: the importance of focusing on present day. She might ask, “How is substance use affecting the youth in your community right now?” This tailored approach consistently elicits a positive response from community members.
Meet Them Where They Are (Literally!)
Not all of Hall’s outreach efforts are successful right away.
“It can be difficult to get commitment from faith leaders--and even when they do commit, competing priorities often get in the way,” says Hall. “Their time is focused on the immediate needs of their members, and assisting with emergency situations like funeral services or visiting sick families. Also, most don’t have the funds to travel long distances—especially for a training that, at first glance, doesn’t seem to directly address the needs of their congregation.” Hall does her best to overcome these difficulties, rescheduling meetings and trainings on demand, and frequently travelling across the state to meet with partners at their own houses of worship. The recent introduction of webinars has also helped the PES attract faith partners who do not have the resources or time to travel to in-person training events.
Despite the challenges inherent in reaching new communities, Hall remains upbeat and confident, taking every “no” as an opportunity to forge a connection. “It is often a slow process, but eventually, they will come,” says Hall. “And it’s ok to ask again and again, because in the meantime we’re building a strong relationship of trust and friendship.”
Over the past six years, the reach of the Faith-Based PES has expanded substantially, with Hall’s database of contacts growing from 200 to 700 individuals.
As the PES works to secure evaluation resources, a priority will be to gauge the attitudes of faith leaders towards their role in prevention. In a baseline assessment conducted six years ago, respondents consistently reported that while prevention was important, they did not feel it was the job of religious organizations. “I know that would be so much different now,” says Hall. “I would like to systematically examine this attitude change.”
Anecdotally, Hall reports that with broader reach of the site’s education and training programs, she and colleagues from regional prevention centers across the state, are encountering less stigma and fear about addressing the topics of substance use and mental health. Participating faith leaders report that they feel more equipped to safely and effectively talk about prevention with their community members.
Hall says she sees this change as a direct result of connecting prevention messages with the tenets of faith. She encourages prevention professionals to reach out to faith community members: “Learn about them. Learn why they are different [from you]. And then find the things that are the same. This is how you can work together to make a difference.”
*SPF SIG stands for Strategic Prevention Framework State Incentive Grants—infrastructure grants provided to States and federally recognized tribes and tribal organizations to implement SAMHSA's Strategic Prevention Framework.