A Michigan community mental health provider is working to tackle premature deaths among youth with mental illness through a program promoting physical fitness and healthy eating.
St. Clair County Community Mental Health
(CMH) Bfit program
is geared towards helping children and teens build skills related to physical fitness and good nutrition. According to Erika Rice, a program coordinator with St. Clair County CMH, Bfit seeks to encourage lifelong health and wellness habits among participants.
Erica Rice, St. Clair County CMH
"Because somebody who has a mental illness is likely to die [much] earlier than somebody who doesn't, the Bfit program really is trying to get these individuals when they're young, under the age of 18," she says.
A 2019 study published in Frontiers in Psychology
indicated that patients with severe mental illness tend "to die about 10-20 years earlier than the general population
." It also found that these numbers couldn't be solely attributed to causes like accidents or suicide, but were also connected to issues like cardiovascular disease, obesity, tobacco use, and diabetes. A similar report published by the government of the United Kingdom in 2022 estimated that two of three of these premature deaths were from preventable physical illness
St. Clair County CMH launched its Bfit program about a decade ago, at the urging of Cheryl Keaney, a staff member who has also been involved with the community mental health care provider's InShape wellness program
, which is designed along similar lines for adults with severe mental illness. Today Bfit has five health mentor/trainers on staff to help
Bfit is available to youth between the ages of eight and 18 who are already receiving services through St. Clair County CMH. Individuals in the program must have received a serious emotional disturbance diagnosis, be cleared by a physician to take part in the program, and have Medicaid-only health coverage. To sign up, these youth simply mention their interest to their case manager, who will pass the request along.
The program is individualized to meet the needs of participants. Bfit activities often take place at a gym like the YMCA as well as small gym sites at St. Clair County CMH facilities.
"A person can work out in our open gym space, which helps teach the things they could do at home," says Rice. "And they can come here. We have a power bike and a treadmill, so that they can learn how to use them on their own."
Fitness equipment at St. Clair CMH
For youth who may have transportation, income, or other issues that make it difficult for them to get to a gym, there is home-based training through the program as well.
Erin Sullivan, St. Clair County CMH
Erin Sullivan is a fitness and nutrition specialist involved with the Bfit program. She says helping participants learn to make informed budget-conscious eating decisions is also an important part of the programming.
"We help guide them to have better choices," she says. "Not everybody has that knowledge, especially with the kids. They're eating in their household. So it’s really about the family and a general improvement when it comes to their decision making for physical activity and nutrition."
Sullivan is also a firm believer in the idea that "movement is medicine." She says it can benefit not only physical well-being, but also mental health and overall confidence in youth who are physically active on a regular basis.
"Nowadays, it's so easy to sit down behind a phone or computer. Kids just aren't moving in the way that they ought to be," says Sullivan. "I think it's really crucial that we get in there and expose them to the potential and also the dangers of not following some sort of an active program with good nutrition."
Day Treatment Night Watch
Bfit isn't the only program that St. Clair County CMH offers to at-risk youth. Day Treatment Night Watch
is a program run by St. Clair County Circuit Court's Family Division designed to support youth on probation who have manifested behavioral issues at home, school, or in the community. Youth and their parents or guardians are mandated to participate in the program by the court. Participants stay in their homes while receiving a whole spectrum of support that includes drug screening, counseling, education, family support groups, recreational services and daily surveillance monitoring.
Three state licensed clinicians provide a whole scope of mental health programming including individual, family, group and psychiatric services.
St. Clair County CMH also provides services and supports to adults with serious mental illness, adults and children with intellectual/developmental disabilities, and people with co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders. The goal is to journey with patients and their families to a place of hope, achievement, and recovery.
David Sands is a freelance writer based in Detroit. He's covered news for the Huffington Post Detroit, as an assistant editor, and for Mode Shift, as a staff writer. Follow him on twitter @DSandsDetroit.
St. Clair CMH facility photos by Nick Hagen.
Other photos courtesy St. Clair Community Mental Health.
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 Transformation, Genesee Health System, Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan, North Country CMH, Northern Lakes CMH Authority, OnPoint, Sanilac County CMH, St. Clair County CMH, Summit Pointe, and Washtenaw County CMH.
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