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Mental health, affordable housing top list of local priorities
Free Lance-Star - 8/14/2022
Aug. 14—At one time or another, many people probably have gathered around a conference table to come up with goals and improvements for the workplace, whether in a giant corporation, family business, local government or nonprofit.
The ideas get assembled in an electronic document or printed in a notebook—and there they sit.
A recent effort by two major entities in the Fredericksburg region pulled together surveys and meetings with about 100 organizations over the course of almost a year to develop a Community Health Improvement Plan, or CHIP. Those involved believe the plan won't have the chance to gather dust.
"This is not pie in the sky," said Barb Barlow, executive director of Mental Health of America of Fredericksburg. "For every strategy that's listed here, you will find an entity accepting responsibility."
In addition, the agency named in each objective will sign a memorandum of understanding with the Rappahannock Area Health District, which partnered with Mary Washington Healthcare for the first time, to develop the plan. There will be quarterly reviews and updates by the group's core team, which also will revise goals as the public suggests more ideas.
"What you see here are from people who came to the table, ready to go," said Michelle Wagaman, prevention services director for the Rappahannock Area Community Services Board. "The only things listed in the plan are ones that people are committed to doing."
Mental Health America of Fredericksburg and the RACSB figure prominently in the CHIP because mental health was rated as the top priority for the area, which includes Fredericksburg and the counties of Caroline, King George, Spotsylvania and Stafford.
The two agencies also are on the line for strategies for the third priority: access to health care. Some of the objectives drill down to a precise measurement, such as teaching 50 seniors and disabled residents a year how to use Fredericksburg Regional Transit, or the FRED bus system, to get to medical appointments.
The second priority identified—affordable housing—caused "kind of a pause moment" among the organizing partners whose focus is public health and health care, said Devyn Bell, a community engagement specialist with the local health district.
She helped coordinate the effort and at first wondered how housing fit into the plan. Then, the more she thought about necessities like food, water and a roof over peoples' heads, the more she recognized its importance.
"When the basic needs of the community aren't met, like affordable housing, it's really difficult to focus on the higher needs such as mental health, education and stuff like that," Bell said. "Affordable housing really does have a larger health component to it."
And an even larger component may be the money to implement the strategies. The Mary Washington Hospital Foundation and Stafford Hospital Foundation have grants of up to $5,000 each that can be applied for, anytime, and larger annual ones to support goals identified in the CHIP.
"This partnership with RAHD and other community organizations represents our shared dedication to the health and well-being of the Fredericksburg region," said Xavier Richardson, president of the hospital foundations and a senior vice president with MWHC.
The partnering agencies first developed a Community Health Needs Assessment which identified 14 needs after surveys and interviews, Bell said. Then, the core team—eight representatives from the health district and Mary Washington Healthcare—narrowed the list to eight priorities.
Representatives from about 100 community agencies and members of the public gathered during spring meetings. Participants were given $1,000 in Monopoly money and were asked to put their money where their mouth is, Bell said, by dropping C-notes into buckets for each priority.
"When we were counting it up, mental health clearly rose to the top," Bell said.
Many of the strategies focus on suicide prevention and include expanding programs already in place. For instance, by June 2025, MHAFred is tasked with presenting Signs of Suicide to middle- and high-schoolers in each local school district that partners with it. The agency also will expand its program to youth groups, private schools and homeschoolers, juvenile detention centers and underserved communities.
Along similar lines, the RACSB will continue teaching Mental Health First Aid, which prepares participants to respond to issues like suicide threats, to at least 10% of the staff in each interested school. Just last week, the agency trained school nurses, Wagaman said.
Having mental health needs identified as the region's top priority—particularly after the COVID-19 pandemic caused even more crises—brings validation to work that's underway, she said.
"It's one way to help increase education and reduce the stigma around mental health," Wagaman said, "and the more that we can talk about it and share the resources we have and help the community be well-versed, the healthier community we'll be overall."
Susan Doepp, a southern Stafford County resident who manages several properties in the region, attended the CHIP sessions because she was "alarmed by the area's inaction regarding affordable housing."
Earlier this year, a two-story Colonial home she manages came on the market for the rental price of $2,400 a month. At least 10 of the 15 people who inquired about it had housing vouchers, designed to help pay rent for those with low income. None of them qualified financially, and she was shocked by how many people had vouchers but no place to use them.
Like Bell, Doepp has come to view affordable housing as a necessity but believes society has a different attitude toward those who don't make enough money to rent or buy in today's market.
"If you see somebody by the side of the road dying of thirst, you give them water. But if you see somebody struggling to afford a place to live, so many peoples' attitude is tough luck, work harder," said Doepp, adding she was glad to see the subject net such a high rating. "We can't bury our heads in the sand, we can't deny that the people around us are struggling through no fault of their own."
Chip Boyles, who joined the George Washington Regional Commission as executive director in November, will put together a work group and framework by December and come up with strategies to address the issue by December 2023. He's also charged with meeting with government representatives on the state and local level.
Boyles worked on similar issues in the Charlottesville area where a survey showed that some families were spending up to 72% of their monthly income on housing needs and transportation.
"That leaves no money for other things they need for life," he said.
He and his team used the average salary of a public school teacher with one or two children and discovered there weren't many homes available in that price range.
"I think it would be the same in any area where you have a growing population, and Fredericksburg is one of those," Boyles said. "One of our biggest problems is it's such a wonderful place and so many people want to live here."
ACCESS TO CARE
The pandemic has shown the disparities that exist among Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, seniors and people with low incomes in terms of access to health, according to the CHIP. The plan identifies several specific objectives that use community agencies, such as the YMCA, Healthy Generations Area Agency on Aging and Fredericksburg Area Health and Support Services.
Objectives range from providing HIV testing to 100 people in low-income, remote neighborhoods to hosting at least four Health Education and Literacy, or HEAL, programs at local libraries and community centers throughout the region.
The health district and MWHC also will work to increase awareness of Unite Us, a nationwide platform which lists service providers across the board—not just in health care or for mental health services but also for child care and housing, Bell said. It's similar to a Helpline program that Mental Health America of Fredericksburg has operated for 12 years which lists local providers, their specialties and payment methods—except with a broader focus.
There also are specific objectives to increase the number of mental health providers and health-care workers, including through contracts with Germanna Community College. Bell said the team tried to look at various barriers in place from lack of transportation to lack of internet access for those who'd like to use telehealth services.
"We tried to get as many different perspectives as we could," she said, adding it won't matter what services people qualify for if they can't get to the appointments or there aren't any providers available. "We're just going to be running into a wall."
Input about the Community Health Improvement Plan can be sent to Devyn Bell at email@example.com.
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425
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