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A Glimpse of Africa founder Fridah Kanin (far right) with volunteers at a recent COVID-19 vaccine clinic for the local African immigrant population as part of a collaboration with  Kent County. A Glimpse of Africa founder Fridah Kanin (far right) with volunteers at a recent COVID-19 vaccine clinic for the local African immigrant population as part of a collaboration with Kent County. COURTESY PHOTO

Nonprofits step up as Kent, Ottawa counties see rising mental health needs

BY JOSH SPANNINGA Sunday, March 28, 2021 02:21pm

Earlier this month, Kent and Ottawa counties separately released results from their Community Health Needs Assessment reports, which compile data from surveys of county residents, health care professionals, and community leaders. 

The results are published every three years in both counties and are used to help health officials identify pressing issues within the community and develop plans to address key problem areas. This year’s data reflect a growing need for mental health services that will require new and ongoing partnerships with area nonprofits.

Ottawa County-based nonprofit Community SPOKE plays an integral role in facilitating discussions about using the assessment’s findings to improve the community. The group was formed in 2013 out of a partnership between Ottawa County and the Lakeshore Nonprofit Alliance.

Community SPOKE Executive Director Patrick Cisler says the assessment findings help inform a Community Health Improvement Plan, which has been rebranded as the Healthy Ottawa Plan for 2021. Planning meetings are set to start virtually on April 15.

“That is a collaborative planning process where we engage multiple sectors in our community, from nonprofits and governments to for-profits and others to really prioritize what the greatest needs are and then develop some ideas on what we can collectively do to address those,” Cisler said. 

Mental health a main concern

The Ottawa County Community Health Needs Assessment identifies three main areas of concern: mental health, access to care, and fostering healthy behaviors. 

The data surrounding mental health are especially concerning to health officials as the number of area adults who report poor mental health has nearly doubled since 2017, according to survey results. One in five area adults have thought about taking their own life in the past year, while — of those — one in five have attempted suicide. Suicide rates among youth are even worse, officials report.

Cisler and Sarah Lewakowski, a psychologist and executive director of Grand Haven-based nonprofit Mosaic Counseling, say nonprofits are in a unique position to provide mental health services. 

Mosaic Counseling’s small staff and “very low overhead” make it nimble to address needs while it can raise funding through grants, churches, foundations and individuals, she said.

“We’re just able to leverage that money with our partnership with therapists who are in private practice,” Lewakowski said.

Mosaic has 95 therapists on its panel, which is expected to grow to 110 soon in effort to meet community needs. Lewakowski became Mosaic’s executive director in 2004, and says she’s never seen a greater need for mental health services in that time than now. And unlike private practices, Mosaic does not turn away anyone who lives or works in Ottawa County.

“We’re getting referrals from other agencies, and we want to be able to keep up with that commitment,” Lewakowski said. “It’s tricky right now. We are continuing to do it, but it’s tough.”

Lewakowski recently received a call from an area man who had been seeking mental health assistance unsuccessfully for six months because of a lack of insurance coverage. By the time he got through to Mosaic, he was already feeling suicidal. It’s a story that’s all too common in the mental health field, she said.

“That’s what we hear a lot of — people who are uninsured or under-insured,” Lewakowski said. “We want people to get counseling as soon as possible, before they start feeling suicidal. We want to help prevent that. Suicide is the most preventable kind of death, however it’s not predictable.”

Kent County assessment

Results from the Kent County Community Health Needs Assessment also identified mental health as a key priority along with access to care, economic security, and discrimination and racial inequity. 

Kent County Health Department Public Health Epidemiologist Maris Brummel believes the process to address these priorities will look different this year as public officials look to join existing coalitions.

“We’re going to explore what it would look like to potentially join other coalitions that are already doing this work rather than starting from the ground up and building our own work group for something like that,” Brummel said.

Especially concerning are the results that indicate discrimination as a major barrier to receiving health care, particularly among people with a disability, transgender people, and people who don’t speak English as their first language. Race and ethnicity also play a large role in barriers to receiving health care.

“We’re specifically thinking about how to approach those topics because they’re also very broad and complex,” Brummel said.

Much like the Healthy Ottawa Plan, Kent County will hold meetings where nonprofits, area leaders, county officials and others discuss how to address the community’s health needs. Kent County has a long history of collaborating with local nonprofits, which now appears more important than ever.

Recently Kent County collaborated with A Glimpse of Africa to provide COVID-19 vaccinations specifically for the local African immigrant population. A Glimpse of Africa played a crucial role in getting the word out and making this underserved population aware of the opportunity.

“Some groups have language barriers, we all have cultural barriers, we all have a lack of resources that makes it difficult to be able to access what’s available in the community,” A Glimpse of Africa founder Fridah Kanini told MiBiz.

Kanini is Kenyan and moved to Michigan more than 15 years ago. She says the clinic was a “very huge success,” and that the group is open to working on similar projects with the county in the future. 

“Honestly, I think the work paid off,” Kanini said. “We didn’t fill out every single spot we had, so other communities joined us at some point.” 

While the vaccination clinic was not connected to Kent County’s Community Health Needs Assessment, it is indicative of the type of collaboration that will be crucial to addressing community health concerns in the future.

“It’s definitely something to consider when planning future programs and policies and initiatives,” Brummel said. “It’s really going to be kind of at the forefront.” 

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