Five years ago, Mellie Bridewell, president and CEO of the Arkansas Rural Health Partnership (ARHP), received what amounted to a cry for help.
Medical professionals across the southeastern corner of Arkansas recognized the need to address mental health issues in their communities and reached out to Mellie and the ARHP.
“We started hearing in 2016 that the hospitals wanted us to address mental health issues,” said Mellie. “So, we started moving in that direction.”
With a shortage of mental health professionals in that part of the state, many people with mental health needs were going undiagnosed or waiting for long periods for adequate treatment – sometimes with catastrophic results.
“If you come into the emergency room with chest pains, physicians can hook you up to a machine and diagnose you fairly quickly,” said Amanda Kuttenkuler, ARHP’s Mental Health Initiatives program director. “But with mental health issues, we don’t always know what to do. Even physicians were asking for resources.”
The Hard Truth
But, while increasing the number of mental health professionals in south Arkansas is the ideal solution to the problem, it just wasn’t realistic in the short term.
“We asked ourselves, what can we do right now, without mental health professionals in place?” said Mellie. “What are some best practices that we can implement right now?”
The answer: Mental Health First Aid.
“Mental health first aid was the thing that was most affordable,” said Mellie. “The thing that would have an immediate impact.”
Mental health first aid trains people to be first responders to mental health issues. Training in mental health first aid teaches people to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness and substance use disorders. The training provides the skills necessary to provide initial support to someone who may be developing a mental health or substance use problem and help connect them to the appropriate care.
To get the ball rolling, Mellie applied for a $115,000 grant from the Blue & You Foundation for a Healthier Arkansas to launch youth mental health first aid training throughout southern Arkansas. The grant was approved.
“The foundation had previously funded a grant to promote mental health first aid within the organization requesting the funding,” said Rebecca Pittillo, executive director of the Blue & You Foundation. “But this grant was unique because ARHP was taking the training to school districts within the state and impacting many communities quickly. We understood the great need for mental health awareness and were pleased to have the opportunity to fund this effort.”
The ARHP began a series of training sessions to equip teachers and healthcare professionals in mental health first aid. ARHP serves 18 school districts and 14 hospitals in the southeastern corner of Arkansas. In one year’s time – from June 2020 through July 2021 – they were able to train 537 people in mental health first aid. And the effort has already shown results.
“We have had some teachers tell us they’ve had students in class exhibiting troubling behavior. And, because of this training, they were able to recognize those students were in crisis and were able to get them help,” said Amanda. “Others have been able to identify issues in their classrooms and resolve them before they escalated.”
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 1 in 5 adults in the United States lives with a mental illness.
“Most organizations are reactive when it comes to mental health,” said Amanda. “Something happens. We rush in and ask, ‘What do we do now?’ This mental health first aid training empowers people to be proactive. To see problems ahead of time and get people the help they need on the front end.”
“The best part of our relationship with the Blue & You Foundation is being able to pivot when we need to,” said Amanda. “The flexibility to adjust our plans when necessary is essential.”
Mellie agreed. “It’s great the foundation can provide funding, but they have their thumb on the pulse of communities,” she said. “They know what’s going on. You can call them and ask, ‘What do you think we need to do here?’ It’s more of a partnership.”
A Success Story
Already the results have been impressive.
“The Blue & You Foundation couldn’t be more pleased with the results of this grant and the changes that are taking place because of ARHP’s vision of mental health first aid across southeast Arkansas,” said Rebecca.
Not only have there been actual cases of people getting the help they needed when they needed it, but Mellie points out the stigma that comes with mental health issues is beginning to be erased.
“This program helps do that,” she said. “It helps heal, too,” said Amanda. “I’m satisfied with how well this is working. But there is so much more to do.”
Thanks to a new grant from the Blue & You Foundation for the new Mental Health Community Expansion Project, they can begin doing more.
“We are even more pleased that they will be expanding this work in 2022 to reach at least 26,800 youth with much-needed mental and behavioral health interventions,” said Rebecca.
The new project will increase access to mental and behavioral health resources and services for youth ages 12-18. It will expand the availability of youth mental health first aid, launch mental health awareness and suicide prevention training and will train at least 5,200 people to reach 25,800 youth with needed mental and behavioral health interventions.
“The Mental Health Community Expansion Project is one of 41 grants awarded by the foundation in 2022 and one of eight grants that focus specifically on behavioral health,” Rebecca said.
About Arkansas Rural Health Partnership
Headquarters: Lake Village, Ark.
Mission: To create and implement sustainable community solutions to improve the healthcare infrastructure and strengthen healthcare delivery in south Arkansas.
Vision: To ensure everyone has access to quality and localized healthcare throughout south Arkansas through collaborative efforts.
What we believe: We believe that residents across south Arkansas should not live shorter or poorer quality lives largely because they live in a rural setting. We envision a future where all south Arkansas residents can enjoy access to excellent healthcare providers and experience quality health outcomes no matter their socioeconomic background, gender, ethnicity and where they choose to live and work.