Education key to prevention of mental health problems

What do most people know about mental health?  Not enough, participants in a roundtable discussion sponsored by Keweenaw Support 4 Healthy Minds agreed. But there are a number of organizations in the area trying to change that. 

The meeting at the Portage Lake District Library Tuesday evening focused on prevention of mental health problems–what prevention looks like and how to accomplish it.  Participants included Keweenaw Support 4 Healthy Minds, Dial Help, Copper Country Community Mental Health, the Veterans Administration and the Mental Health Support Group-Keweenaw Area.  

“We need to educate the public,” said Michelle Morgan, head of Keweenaw Support 4 Healthy Minds (KS4HM) and former director of Copper Country Community Mental Health. “That means more talking about mental health, reducing stigma, teaching people how to recognize a mental health crisis and intervene, and helping people who are struggling learn coping skills and find resources.”  

Prevention is key, Morgan went on to say. “You can’t impact a big public health problem like mental health just with treatment. We need prevention on a community level to reduce risk factors and promote strengths.” 

A health needs assessment recently released by the Western UP Health Department agrees. In the study funded by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, 42 partner agencies surveyed 3,500 UP residents. One of three key themes that emerged was the importance of prevention. 

Morgan shared what she called an apt metaphor for the current state of mental health: “We keep pulling people out of the river, but we don’t know if they are jumping in, falling, being pushed. What is happening upstream?” 

Organizations such as KS4HM, Dial Help, Copper Country Community Mental Health (CCCMH) and the Veterans Administration are trying to address that question.  So is the Mental Health Support Group-Keweenaw Area, which provides a confidential space for mental health clients, their families and friends to share issues and ideas.  The support group meets monthly at the Institute on Sharon Avenue in Houghton. 

“Data is important,” said Taryn Mason, who works with CCCMH. “You need to know what is happening in order to provide evidence-based programs.” She described a 5-year grant that CCCMH used to study alcohol abuse prevention among teenagers and young adults. “We got some surprising results,” she said. “We found that 71 percent of young adults don’t drink because of their friends, and 80 percent know that their parents would be upset to know they drank.”   

As a result of the study, CCCMH developed what Mason called “a multi-pronged approach.”  For example, they took students to grocery stores to place warning stickers on multipacks of beer and sent letters to parents of seniors in Houghton and Baraga counties, offering a prize drawing to those who agreed not to serve their kids alcohol. But when the grant ended, the agency lost the coordinator of the program. “There isn’t long-term prevention funding, said Mason. “Something is funded and it works, and then the funding is gone.”  

Dial Help offers several programs that focus on educating young people about drug abuse and teaching them life skills, including a Teen Outreach Program (TOP) and Communities That Care (CTC). TOP now has 42 sixth, seventh and eighth graders participating in an after-school program, which teaches anti-bullying and developing empathy, among other life skills. The CTC here–one of eight programs in 10 UP counties–focuses on suicide prevention through monthly work groups. Its mission is to develop a supportive, safe community that empowers youth through education, positive relationships, healthy beliefs and clear standards.

Linda Pelli, a teacher for 17 years, said suicide prevention can’t be stressed enough. “Every year I taught, I lost a student to suicide or had a student whose family had been affected by suicide,” she said.  

Keweenaw Support 4 Healthy Minds is developing a survey of adults on alcohol and drug abuse and other mental health issues. “Drinking is a huge cultural norm here,” Morgan observed. “We want to explore what’s going on and ways to intervene. We have to ask questions, start with data, to find where the gaps are in knowledge and where resistance is.” 

Gathering data can be difficult. Individuals may resist surveys that ask personal questions, and schools can feel that it takes too much classroom time. Reaching veterans will be tricky too, but it’s really important, said Alyssa Knoll, who does suicide prevention work with the VA.   

KS4HM is also planning a training called Question, Persuade, Refer (QPR) in Calumet in November. Keweenaw County Sheriff Curt Pennala, who is a QPR trainer and has spoken out publicly about the need for better mental health services, will lead the session.


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