Mental health outreach reduces stigma and raises awareness of services

“I think it’s incredibly important to continually educate, inform, and reach out to the community about the services we provide.” Debra Johnson, CEO of St. Clair County CMH.
During this year’s Santa Parade in downtown Croswell, Sanilac County Community Mental Health arranged complimentary activities as part of its outreach efforts.
Like many of Michigan's community mental health agencies (CMHs), St. Clair County Community Mental Health and Sanilac County Community Mental Health continually work to stay visible in the community with a variety of outreach efforts.
 Debra Johnson
“I think it’s incredibly important to continually educate, inform, and reach out to the community about the services we provide,” says Debra Johnson, CEO of St. Clair County CMH. 

For one, Johnson takes part in monthly WPHM 1380 AM radio and cable television programs. 

“We have a really strong media presence including social media,” she says. “This includes Facebook, Instagram, a really good website, and an ongoing billboard campaign.”

Both St. Clair CMH and Sanilac County CMH conduct outreach through Mental Health First Aid training. St. Clair County CMH Mental Health First Aid training gives staff an opportunity to do just that while talking about the organization. 

“We’ve trained 1,000 at this point in our community,” Johnson says. “They’re taught how to recognize mental health signs and symptoms and how to refer to the mental health services they need.” 

Scooby Doo, where are you? With Sanilac County CMH!
In Sanilac, five trainers provide the training to employee groups, churches, and businesses. 

“We teach people the signs and symptoms in people in a crisis and how to handle a crisis situation,” says Linda Koepf, community educator with Sanilac County CMH. “We’re literally teaching people to recognize what is going on in another human being.”

Wil Morris, Sanilac County CMH CEO, gives an example of being in a large store like Lowe’s or Walmart and seeing a person crying or distraught. 

“A lot of people decide that the person doesn’t want to be bothered,” Morris says. “Through this training, we help you realize that you are probably what that person needs right now.”

Asking that person if they’re OK and what one can do to help could save a life. 

“Just that smile, just that kind word might be all they need,” Morris says. “Alternatively, if you turn around and go down the next aisle, you reinforce to them that there is no one who is going to help.”

The mental health first aid training has received a lot of positive feedback. “Everyone always leaves very happy and content,” Koepf says. "Reaching more people benefits everyone and helps reduce the stigma of mental health."

Koepf notes that language can cause negative reactions, for example, calling Michigan weather “bi-polar.”

“We try to get people to think about their words before they speak in public,” Koepf says.

Kids enjoy free activities as part of Sanilac County CMH outreach.
Sanilac County CMH also offers a smoking cessation program. A trained facilitator uses a curriculum and provides alternatives for individuals to quit smoking. He notes a large percentage of people with mental health issues smoke, higher than the general population. 

“It’s honestly just a support group for people trying to quit,” Morris says. 

Because a healthier staff results in a more productive workplace, Morris encourages staff members to lead by example and quit smoking.

Sanilac County CMH helped bring the Sawyer Auger “It’s OK to not be OK” Tour to Sandusky in May 2023. Morris notes that taking part in community fairs with several hundred in attendance also has been successful. In a novel way to get the message out, Sanilac County CMH brought in singer Sawyer Auger for two summer concerts in 2023. A contestant on the eighth season of The Voice, the young vocalist and guitarist from southern California performed a mix of soul, pop, and classic rock while sharing his own struggle with mental illness. 

“His message is ‘It’s OK to not be OK,’” Morris says. 

“He encourages people to reach out and receive help to reduce the stigma of mental health, and we were hoping to reach more youth,” Koepf adds. “We were approached by a community member regarding sponsorship for this concert, which led to us looking at the arts as a way to engage with the community. He encourages people to reach out and receive help to reduce the stigma of mental health.”

Morris says the concerts were well attended and got a lot of positive feedback. He anticipates sponsoring more concerts and musicians who can bring additional mental health messages.

Community events like the Sawyer Auger concert also work to reduce stigma. 

“We continue to promote activities to reduce stigma including articles in the paper and our annual report to promote positive change for individuals who receive services,” Morris says. 

Sanilac County CMH outreach includes emergency food distribution.
Outreach helps reduce stigma

Comparing mental illness to a cancer diagnosis, Johnson notes that much of St. Clair County CMH outreach focuses on reducing stigma. Like Sanilac County CMH, St. Clair County CMH also participates in numerous community events. 

“We’re more visible when we participate in community events,” Johnson says. “These include the Rotary International Day Parade in Port Huron, Fourth of July parades, Great American Smokeout, and the St. Clair County Community Baby Shower. A sampling of other methods, activities, events, and outreach activities includes art shows, logo/stigma gear, YMCA events, Pride events, walks, support groups, parent trauma groups, PowerPoint presentations to school and community groups, back-to-school toolkits, and nutrition and wellness events.”

Another way that St. Clair County CMH reaches out to the community is through its Mobile Crisis Unit (MCU). A free service started six years ago, the MCU team is made up of clinicians, mental health assistants, and peer support specialists. The MCU crisis response team is available 24/7, all year 'round to anyone in the county. MCU answers calls from individuals with emotional struggles, suicidal thoughts or behaviors, substance abuse concerns, or mental health emergencies. The team helps these people in crisis to formulate safety plans and arrange follow-up treatment, if needed. 

“We meet them anywhere in the county,” Johnson says. “We get a lot of calls from the local police department and schools.” 

In other outreach efforts, St. Clair County CMH collaborates with 70 community organizations including schools, hospitals, and nonprofits. As an example, a grant-funded outreach to community pediatricians that encourages them to make referrals to the CMH has been very successful.

Kids making ornaments with Sanilac County CMH.
Growing need for services

Both community mental health agencies said the need for their services is growing. Before the pandemic, St. Clair County CMH was serving about 4,000 patients a year, and it’s now up to 6,000. 

“COVID made people more aware of mental health issues. People are reaching out for help,” Johnson says. “Our number of staff members has grown from around 200 to 460 and includes many master’s level clinicians and caseworkers.”

Sanilac County CMH is also seeing a steady increase in numbers served in the last few years from nearly 700 in 2021 to 1,500 in 2023. Morris says he anticipates a continued steady increase in individuals and families seeking services.

Continuing outreach to communities will let even more people know that mental health help is available in Sanilac, St. Clair, and other Michigan counties served by community mental health.

Karen Gentry is an established journalist and communications specialist in the Grand Rapids area. She has written for numerous outlets including School News Network, Michigan Trails Magazine, MLive, and MiBiz. She is a graduate of Central Michigan University.

Photos by Liz Fredendall

Sawyer Auger photo courtesy subject.

The MI Mental Health series highlights the opportunities that Michigan's children, teens, and adults of all ages have to find the mental health help they need, when and where they need it. It is made possible with funding from the Community Mental Health Association of Michigan, Center for Health and Research TransformationMental Health Foundation of West Michigan, Northern Lakes CMH AuthorityOnPoint, St. Clair County CMH, Sanilac County CMH, Summit Pointe, and Washtenaw County CMH.

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