As COVID-19 continues to spread across the Unites States, mental health and addiction services professionals understand all too well the uncertainty that is taking a toll on people's mental health.
Health care providers in Kentucky recently reported a 20 percent increase in calls to suicide prevention hotlines in their state, and while Ohio hasn’t yet measured a direct impact, its local mental health community is working together feverishly to build an arsenal of tools and resources to help people cope with increased fear and anxiety.
Dr. Holly Raffle, Professor of Leadership and Public Affairs, leads the Programmatic Partnership for Community-Based Prevention for Ohio University’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs.
With a staff of six employees and the support of five students, the Partnership has a wide reach across the state of Ohio. Their work centers on building processes to help communities develop long-range strategic plans and programs that inspire civic involvement to address real issues. Since 2008, the Partnership has generated nearly $11.5 million in external project funding from state and federal organizations. Additional funding from the state legislature’s Appalachian New Economy Partnership is also helping to support the ongoing work.
“Our work is providing resources and support to create strong prevention, treatment, and recovery communities across Ohio,” Raffle said. “We are working with our community partners now to leverage work that was being accomplished before the COVID-19 pandemic to develop new tools and resources help children and families adjust to the new normal.”
Before COVID-19 started to spread like wildfire across the globe, the Partnership worked with the Ohio Suicide Prevention Foundation and the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services to develop an initiative and to help strengthen and sustain suicide prevention coalitions across the state. There are 17 county-wide coalitions participating in the initiative, including four coalitions representing Ohio’s Appalachian region: Ashtabula, Clermont, Lawrence, and Wayne counties.
Raffle said the focus of her team’s work has now shifted to finding new ways to connect people to one another. For example, the team has organized virtual discussion sessions for communities to share expertise and resources with each other.
Partners are connecting other ways too. For example, they are providing suicide prevention hotline information and messaging with lunches that schools are providing to families during the pandemic, finding ways to connect with families in a virtual space when there is a suicide death within a community, and identifying open communication channels where people who have experienced a suicide loss have an opportunity to discuss their feelings.
Raffle said she is proud that the Voinovich School has resources to bring these communities together to see each other as experts at this important time.
“We are working with our suicide prevention coalitions to plan virtual interactions and check-ins because we’ve never seen anything like this,” Raffle said. “This is a unique confluence of events, where we have this economic fallout at a time when we also want people to self-isolate, and human beings need other people. It’s almost like we need to look at this situation as a health crisis combined with an economic recession, which is really concerning because no one can really predict what we are going to see. Time will only tell, and we are just trying to be really ahead of it on the prevention side as much as possible.”
In addition to providing mental health outreach and assistance, Raffle’s team is connecting with local communities to implement, evaluate, and sustain evidence-based efforts for prevention, treatment and recovery.
For example, they recently hosted a meeting with substance abuse coalition partners in Adams and Lawrence counties where they heard concerns from attendees about the ability to continue their work during this crisis. Partners talked about their efforts to engage early elementary school students in grades K-3 in virtual activities one hour every week, which also provided their parents with positive coping skills that will lower substance misuse and increase mental wellness.
“This is about restructuring what it is that we do, providing outside perspective,” Raffle said. “The University is helping prevention providers that are already doing good work see things through a new lens. Their contributions are essential during and after the crisis.”
The Foundation for Appalachian Ohio and Ohio University have co-invested in youth-led prevention programs through the Ohio Adult Allies Initiative, which supports young people in leading community change efforts. Need for this programming continues to grow, and adult allies rely on OHIO’s Partnership for Community-Based Prevention to help engage their youth through virtual calls and town hall meetings.
“In this case, we are providing a platform for people to connect and amplify the good work they’re already doing in their communities,” Raffle said. “Sometimes, these folks just need confirmation that they are doing good work.”
Ohio University recently connected community partners with community resilience grant funding opportunities from ServeOhio, in conjunction with the Corporation for National and Community Service, Honda of America Mfg. and AEP Foundation, to support and encourage community service and volunteerism for youth.
The Urban Minority Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Outreach Program (UMADAOP) has partnered with OHIO during the pandemic to identify ways to continue evidence-based programs that support family reunification for incarcerated parents and their children. When Ohio’s prison system stopped allowing programming in the prisons due to COVID-19, the Partnership identified a new funding opportunity with AEP Foundation, which, if funded, will provide these families with letter writing materials to write to each other to stay connected when there’s no visitation.
“It’s really the Voinovich School just being a connector,” Raffle said. “Learning about these opportunities and getting these applications out – in all of these cases, we supported people who needed technical assistance. This was a really short application, but it’s amazing how a short application creates anxiety, but it’s also really amazing what a $2,000 grant can do.”
The Voinovich School has a project funded by the federal Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) to help communities in Sandusky, Seneca, Fairfield, Washington, and Ashtabula counties implement the Rural Communities Opioid Response Program. Prior to COVID-19, the grant was working to support communities with holistic substance abuse prevention, treatment and recovery solutions. The community partners recently completed a study to ensure that they were providing culturally and linguistically appropriate services to deliver messaging that resonates with different cultures and is accessible in multiple languages. They were so pleased with this accomplishment because when COVID-19 came, there was a real need to get their messages out to all members of the community and they had learned they could have a whole website translated by the click of a button.
“It’s those awesome little things we find - by working together and working through,” Raffle said. “What we provide is a space for communities to work through their issues related to drugs and mental health in a systematic way.”