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Study: Mental health, housing, addressing diversity disparities top needs in Frederick County

Frederick News-Post - 7/25/2022

Jul. 26—Mental health, affordable housing and disparities related to diversity are the top three needs facing Frederick County, according to a study commissioned by The Community Foundation of Frederick County.

Devereux Consulting, of Silver Spring, interviewed 35 community leaders for the Frederick County Human Needs Assessment's 2022 update to a 2018 study. The update was posted to the Community Foundation's website Monday.

The 35 individuals interviewed, referred to as "key informants" in the assessment, represent 20 leaders in public sector organizations, 14 leaders of nonprofits and one person from a specific community of interest, according to the study. The informants included representatives of county and local government, health care providers, police, churches and cultural organizations.

Interviews for the update to the assessment took place between Jan. 20 and March 14.

The Community Foundation manages millions of dollars across hundreds of funds, such as grants and scholarships. Some people designate their money to specific scholarships or causes. Others make unrestricted donations that allow the Community Foundation to decide where the money will go.

The human needs assessment influences where the Community Foundation invests unrestricted funds, to make the greatest impact in the community, according to President and CEO Elizabeth Y. Day. Grant applications that address the top needs in the community will be given extra consideration, she said.

The foundation is often asked about the most pressing needs in the community, Day said.

"It's important that the Community Foundation have information at its fingertips to address these inquiries, and that this information is based on solid evidence based on not just perceptions, but also data," she said Monday.

To gather that information, the Community Foundation conducted its first communitywide needs assessment in 2011, then another in 2018. Day said the COVID-19 pandemic led the Community Foundation to seek an updated study this year.

In the 2022 update, human needs were examined in the context of COVID-19. Informants were asked what positive and negative aspects of human services systems that the pandemic revealed.

In terms of mental health, key informants expressed concern over long-term trauma people have experienced due to the pandemic, according to the assessment.

Seniors in isolation, children cut off from school and stress on front-line workers were among the issues raised. There is a worry that the need for mental health services and child care might overwhelm the organizations that provide such services.

Informants said rising housing costs are leading people to relocate outside Frederick County. Housing went from "expensive to unaffordable to unobtainable" during the pandemic, informants reported, according to the assessment.

Informants attributed the change to wealthier people who could work remotely moving into the county, driving up the cost of living. The apartment rental market in the city of Frederick was likened to that of Washington, D.C.

For purposes of the assessment, diversity was defined as spanning race, ethnicity, gender, income, age and geographic location. Most informants linked other human needs to disparities in diversity, according to the assessment.

"These patterns are evident in the need for mental health care, affordable housing, transportation, improved job opportunities, and physical health care" and internet access, the assessment said.

There is also a need for bilingual service providers to better serve the Spanish-speaking population, according to the assessment.

Other top needs identified in the assessment were transportation, seniors/aging, income/jobs, health care and substance use disorder.

While informants said the pandemic exacerbated disparities in service delivery, it also highlighted the community's resiliency. Most public sector and nonprofit organizations quickly adapted to remote work, the assessment said, and provided technology such as computers, tablets and free WiFi to people they serve.

The pandemic brought out a "strong sense of community purpose," according to the assessment.

Most informants in the assessment felt optimistic about the county's ability to respond effectively to human needs over the next five years. Nine informants reported they were very optimistic, 20 were cautiously optimistic, four were cautiously pessimistic and two were very pessimistic, the assessment said.

To improve community needs, informants suggested raising awareness of mental health, "more 'honest conversations' about diversity, equity, and inclusion," and making efforts to move past "entrenched political differences." Some informants expressed concern that county leaders operate with a "'small town'" mindset in what is becoming a complex metropolitan area.

Day said the results of the 2022 assessment will be folded into the Community Foundation's strategic plan. The assessment is also meant to be a decision-making tool for the community, she said.

"Our goal is to not have this report collect dust on a shelf," Day said.

Follow Mary Grace Keller on Twitter: @MaryGraceKeller


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