Ypsi-area organizations find new ways to eliminate barriers to mental health care

Innovative new approaches include integrating behavioral health care into other health services and a collaboration to address Black and brown men's mental health challenges.
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed gaps in the way the U.S. health system treats not just physical illness, but mental illness as well. Stigma, misunderstanding, and lack of resources or funding often lead those in need of mental health care to go without much-needed help. However, some Ypsilanti-area organizations are looking closely at the community's specific mental health needs and finding unique approaches to address them.

Money is one of the largest barriers to mental health care, as not all insurance plans cover mental health services, and paying out of pocket for them can be expensive. To make mental health services more accessible to the under-insured and uninsured, staff at Ypsi's Hope Clinic have been working to integrate behavioral health services into the many other services they provide.

Hope Clinic Behavioral Health Manager Julie Payne explains that Hope Clinic has provided licensed counseling services since 2018 as part of pilot grant funding from Michigan Medicine Community Health Services. But she says "commitment from donors" from 2021 onward has allowed Hope Clinic to provide behavioral health screenings and interventions in the clinic's medical and dental offices and its food pantry.

"Integrated services let you see so many more people and allow us to provide all of our services to every patient," Payne says. "Part of the new patient paperwork process includes standardized screeners which allow us to identify areas of need, and if someone is screening positive we intervene and provide access to a behavioral health professional the same day."

Behavioral health integration models have become more common across health systems, but Payne explains that same-day care and human-conducted screenings are more rare due to lack of resources. While Hope Clinic, like many health organizations across the country, has struggled with a lack of staff since the pandemic, Payne says volunteers continue to be drawn to Hope's commitment to supporting all elements of its clients' health.

"Mental health is way more than just in the brain. It's a whole-person experience," Payne says. "I've done mental health in settings that are more clinical, and I don't think I could go back. I want to be in an integrated world where the whole person is treated at the same time."

Stigma can be another barrier to seeking out mental health aid, and many organizations across Washtenaw County are working to reduce stigma so people can get help before they find themselves in crisis. Staff at Ypsi's Packard Health are collaborating with Ann Arbor nonprofit kNEWjoy to find creative mental health solutions for Ypsi's young Black and brown men, who often experience the effects of stigma when discussing mental health. The collaboration is funded by a grant from Washtenaw County’s Mental Health and Public Safety Preservation Millage.
Packard Health director of behavioral health Corey Telin.
Corey Telin, director of behavioral health at Packard Health, explains that kNEWjoy founder Dr. Daphne Watkins approached Packard to collaborate on a project to develop more behavioral health services for this population, who seldom see themselves represented in mental health materials and programming.

"Packard has traditionally done behavioral health services in a clinic serving Medicare and Medicaid patients, but something we see in Dr. Watkins' research is that engaging this population is going to look a bit different," Telin says. "This is honing in on a population that we all know [has] a lack of resources tailored to them."

Packard's Santinio Jones has been leading the collaboration with kNEWjoy, building an advisory board of community members to regularly discuss the mental health struggles of Ypsi's Black and brown men in a safe and non-judgmental environment. 
Santinio Jones.
"This isn't us saying, 'Come to this facility and see what we're doing.' It was me going out and seeing how we can add to what groups are already doing and fill a gap that might be missing," Jones says. "This is an evolving collaborative with no solid stopping point."

Jones explains that the goal of this partnership is not only to develop mental health resources tailored to the specific needs of young Black and brown men in Ypsi, but also to provide those same men with knowledge to aid others in the community and further reduce mental health stigma. He says he hopes to see the individuals in the advisory board become mental health advocacy ambassadors, making the movement more effective and sustainable.

"This is the catalyst to start conversations and help others feel comfortable speaking out," Jones says. "kNEWjoy can help Packard Health build and educate men to be ambassadors in the community to support what we're doing."

Having an advocate can sometimes be the bridge an individual needs to seek mental health services, particularly in populations who are unable to advocate for themselves. At the Student Advocacy Center in Ypsilanti, education advocates work with students and their families across a variety of backgrounds and situations to address the deeper reasons for behavioral issues in the classroom and ensure students stay in school.
Student Advocacy Center Executive Director Peri Stone-Palmquist
SAC Executive Director Peri Stone-Palmquist says that students "who have never had mental health issues before are now struggling to go to school and maintain through the day." Issues like anxiety often present themselves as poor classroom behavior, which can lead to students being removed from class. Stone-Palmquist says that SAC advocates work to avoid removing students from school in order to give them much-needed stability and community.

"Some kids can't learn without a classroom, a teacher, and peers, and being isolated can cause major consequences to mental health," Stone-Palmquist says. "There are other ways to create safety and support for those young people instead of pushing them out."

SAC education advocates Angelina Camilleri and Colleen Walter work with students in the foster care and court systems. These children's lives outside of school are often turbulent, making learning in the traditional sense difficult, if not impossible. Both Camilleri and Walter work with their students over long periods of time, collaborating with school and justice systems and foster families to ensure students are completing schoolwork and addressing root causes of behavioral issues to overall improve their experience in the classroom.

"Students in foster care often have many school placement changes, and we clear the way for at least one end of their life and make that process easier," Walter says. "We know who to connect with what resources, communicate with case workers, and help determine what assistance could be needed."

"We're able to be a bridge between the family and school in ways that are pretty significant," Camilleri says. "Everything is very intentional. We try to learn from every case and center the voices of the people we serve."

SAC, Packard Health, and Hope Clinic all hope to aid county residents struggling with behavioral health issues through their commitment to Ypsi's community, their grassroots work, and their collaborations with other like-minded organizations. 

"There are so many caring, passionate staff in Ypsi. It really holds a special place in my heart," Stone-Palmquist says. "There are always ways to improve, and we're there to make sure families are getting what they need and voices are being heard."

Rylee Barnsdale is a Michigan native and longtime Washtenaw County resident. She wants to use her journalistic experience from her time at Eastern Michigan University writing for the Eastern Echo to tell the stories of Washtenaw County residents that need to be heard.

All photos by Doug Coombe except Hope Clinic staff photo courtesy of Hope Clinic and Santinio Jones photo courtesy of Packard Health.
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