When it comes to health and wellness programs and services, Washtenaw County is typically viewed as a “resource rich” community—home to two major health systems and a robust collection of social service organizations.
Many of these organizations have similar missions or goals for improving population health. And while most know one another, and may even collaborate on certain programs or procedures, they sometimes duplicate efforts on large, systemic health issues—things without clear cut solutions that take collaborative momentum to get the job done.
However, on the west side of the county, a partnership is underway to transform this approach for improved community mental health.
The decision to tackle “one big thing”
5 Healthy Towns Foundation (5HF) is a non-profit foundation whose mission is to cultivate and foster improvements in community and personal health. They fund a variety of community interventions that focus on eating better, moving more, avoiding unhealthy substances, and making meaningful connections with one another—such as the local farmers markets, senior centers, SRSLY, Safe Routes to School, and more.
The foundation serves the towns of Stockbridge and Grass Lake, and three of western Washtenaw County’s communities—Dexter, Chelsea, and Manchester—rural communities with lower population density and in some cases, fewer services and access to care.
In 2019, consultants from ReThink Health led discussions in collaboration with other community players to address a major health issue. By coordinating with St. Joseph Mercy Chelsea, Michigan Medicine’s Department of Family Medicine, and Washtenaw County Community Mental Health (WCCMH), One Big Thing was launched.
Reiley Curran (pictured above) is the manager of community health at St. Joseph Mercy Chelsea and represents her organization for One Big Thing.
She recalls that local organizations previously worked in silos on a variety of health initiatives, sometimes overlapping in scope. However, local leaders wanted to find a way to collaborate more so they could benefit the community in a more measurable, impactful way—focusing on one big thing, rather than lots of smaller, separate things.
“That's kind of where the name ‘One Big Thing’ came from,” explains Curran. “And over the course of discussion, it very quickly became clear that the thing was mental health—impacting everything else and vice versa. And if you wanted to have a big impact, that would be the thing you'd focus on.”
A deliberate process to get organizations on the same page
Lori Kintz, the outreach coordinator at 5HF, recalls that one of the first things the collaboration addressed was how each organization budgeted resources for behavioral health services—broken down into prevention efforts versus urgent services.
“The discussion became, how can we be good stewards of our resources and shift things to be more prevention-oriented,” says Kintz, “so we can together address the issue of declining mental health.”
Curran notes that people often want to focus on individual programs at the beginning, whereas this group is more interested in thinking about the big picture and creating systems change.
“We’re looking at where each of our institutions fit in that bigger system,” says Curran, “and understanding the big picture of what we can influence and the role that we all play in mental health in our communities.”
A natural fit for WCCMH and millage investments
Lisa Gentz is the program administrator for millage initiatives at Washtenaw County Community Mental Health. She notes that it “made sense” for WCCMH to be a partner with mental health as the initiative’s focus.
“We also had this unique opportunity to refocus on the west side of the county,” continues Gentz, “an area that hasn’t historically had the same level of engagement in our services because of its location.”
She agrees with the spirit of collaboration noted by Curran and Kintz, noting that millage initiatives seek to maximize investments through partnerships.
“So many times, larger systems—including us—try to solve every problem by themselves,” says Gentz. “And because we have a limited amount of flexible millage funds, we need to make sure we stretch dollars as far as possible. The only way we can do that is by partnering with others.”
Gentz says that this partnership gives WCCMH the opportunity to maximize their capacity and reach more people, including looking at mental health through a prevention lens—something the organization hasn’t always been able to fully tackle because of limited resources.
Creating the “vital conditions” for mental health
A key focus for the partnership is creating what they call the vital conditions for healthy communities.
Gentz recalls that the group looked at case studies—anonymous stories of real patients. She notes they “allowed us to examine pivotal points in which somebody could have used support that might have changed their trajectory for the better.”
Many of those things were vital conditions—employment, housing, transportation—that people may not equate with mental health. A similar term and framework are social determinants of health—the conditions in the environments where people live that affect a wide range of health outcomes.
“Sustainable change in communities requires you to look at vital conditions,” says Gentz, “instead of only investing in crisis response services. Otherwise, you’re just continuously reacting, instead of being proactive and preventive.”
The group developed four main outcomes that describe how people will feel once the vital conditions for optimal mental health are in place: connected, engaged, optimistic, and resilient.
Engaging residents and looking forward
To help get there, One Big Thing has already launched its official platform—One Big Connection—an open community website portal that links residents with information and resources for mental health and wellbeing.
Residents can browse local resources to meet basic needs, such as food and clothing, help with housing and transportation, social support, lifelong learning, parks and recreation, and more. They can also post issues and have discussions related to improving local conditions.
Steve Petty is the CEO of 5HF. He joined the foundation this past July, taking the reins from the organization’s founding CEO, Amy Heydlauff, who was instrumental in launching One Big Thing.
Petty says that many initiatives are already emerging that the organizations will share a role in—things like virtual programming through NAMI Washtenaw County focused on outreach to westside faith community leaders, a recent SAMHSA grant stewarded by St. Joseph Mercy to improve access to behavioral health services, and exploring programming for seniors and youth to address social isolation.
“The millage funds have been great because they've helped with funding some of those efforts,” notes Petty. “We’re witnessing the positive effects of collaboration and we’re excited for what’s to come.”
As more programs emerge, Gentz feels that it’s important for the public to understand how much behind-the-scenes work has gone into systems alignment between these organizations.
“We’re all working more comprehensively to address local issues,” she says, “and, ultimately, creating the conditions and ability for individuals to meet their mental health needs.”
Story by Gregory Powers