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7 ways cities are actively improving citizens’ mental health

From mindfulness apps to counseling as an affordable housing service, local governments are paying more attention to mental health in their communities — and finding ways to enhance it.

Health & Human Services
LA

Los Angeles County, CA

United States

SC

Sedgwick County, KS

United States

LN

Lockport, NY

United States

TC

Tracy, CA

United States

BC

Breckland Council, GB

United Kingdom

BO

Brantford, ON

Canada

SL

St Louis Park, MN

United States

SC

Stark County, OH

United States

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Highlights
  • Local governments are taking mental health more seriously, and are launching creative efforts to improve the mental wellbeing of their communities

  • Some efforts focus on access to resources, including apps or counselling services

  • Cities are also providing new forms of mental health resources to public servants, such as an app aimed at supporting first responders

  • Events or public features such as a “Mindfulness Walk” in a park are great ways to integrate mental health awareness with other community activities

Summary

Public transit. Water lines. And … feelings?
While local governments have always focused on giving residents what they need to live better lives, these services have typically centered around more concrete concepts like jobs and utilities.
But as mental health awareness becomes a bigger part of the cultural conversation, and as illnesses like depression rise, cities are expanding their purview, and exploring how the public sector can benefit the community’s emotional wellbeing.
A number of cities are launching campaigns to raise awareness of mental health issues. Others are developing apps with resources to address loneliness and depression. And some have taken their efforts to the next level, with a bevy of innovative attempts to support people struggling with mental health.
Here are a few creative ways local governments are turning mental health support into a public service:

Partnering to promote mindfulness

The Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health partnered with the popular mindfulness app, Headspace, to provide free access to all county residents. Headspace, which is headquartered in the county, is providing the service through December 2020 as a response to the coronavirus pandemic. Residents must be physically in LA county in order to sign up.
We’ve seen many examples of this “freemium” approach pop up during the pandemic, as companies offer free access to their products in hopes that customers will continue to subscribe in the future. LA County’s partnership no doubt will benefit the mindfulness app, but it’s also an example of a city bringing in a trusted, brand name provider to bring more attention to its mental health services overall.

Providing support in emergency situations

From substance abuse issues to homelessness, first responders sometimes have to interact with individuals who are emotionally distressed. Understanding that most police, fire, or EMT workers aren’t expert mental health professionals, some communities are working to make sure mental health support plays a more prominent role in the emergency response process.
Sedgwick County, KS launched an Integrated Care Team pilot, which assigned a mental health expert, police officer, and paramedic to any 911 call that may include a mental health issue. After three months, the approach (which has similarities to Colerain Township’s Quick Response Team model) saw an overall reduction in repeat 911 calls from the same sources, and resulted in half of the ICT calls being de-escalated or not requiring an emergency response.
Lockport, NY also piloted a mental health integration in its emergency response. The city’s police department used zoom videoconferencing to have mental health officials communicate with officers and citizens at a crime scene. It’s the one of first response programs of its kind in New York, and is also being trialed in Ontario, Wayne and Broome counties.

Providing support to first responders

Responding to emergencies can also take a psychological toll on first responders. To address this, the city of Tracy, CA, offers all police officers and their family members access to the Cordico Shield Wellness App. In addition to resources like a therapist finder and self-assessments, the app offers a range of features, including financial recommendations and yoga designed for first responders.
Privacy is a key benefit here — officers can use the app anonymously. This eliminates a barrier to seeking help that sometimes exists with in-person services.

Deputizing community members to help

Some places are too spread out or underpopulated to reach citizens via a centralized government-run mental health program. At the same time, people in these areas often are the least likely to seek help for depression and other mental illnesses. In the United Kingdom, Breckland Council is solving for this by recruiting local residents to learn how to recognize and address mental illness. The council partnered with YANA, a rural mental health support charity, to offer free training for people who work in rural areas.
Training local members of the community is a good way to provide support in places where resources are limited or far away. Having more members of the community aware and experienced with mental health challenges also can help to destigmatize these issues and encourage others to seek help among those they trust.

Offering mental health as an affordable housing amenity

Mental health support services aren’t normally on a building facility list, but maybe they should be. In Brantford, ON, a new affordable housing development includes on-site counseling services and other life skills training. The 30-unit housing unit was built via a partnership with the city and Ontario’s Homes for Good program. The support services are provided by Wesley, a non-profit that will have a permanent office in the development.
By integrating wrap-around services with housing, the local government brings support directly to citizens who may not seek it out.

Beating the winter blues

Anyone who’s spent time in the north knows that winter can be a long, dreary affair. To raise awareness of mental health in the community, the city of St. Louis Park, MN organizes an annual winter solstice event. Hosted on the shortest (and therefore darkest) day of the year, the event includes activities such as a luminary walk, bonfires, and s’mores.
Events like this can be a two-pronged tool to support citizens’ mental health. They bring people together, strengthening community ties and counteracting feelings of loneliness. On top of that, by directly associating an event with mental health awareness, the city can draw attention to the challenges many residents face, and pair access to resources with a social activity.

Getting residents moving

The psychological benefits of exercise are well-documented, so Stark County, OH decided to stretch its residents legs and calm their minds. The county introduced a mile-long Mindfulness Walk at a local park, laying out a course along three trails that features ten activity stations. Each stop along the trail promotes self-care, reflection, and mindfulness, and range from a zen garden to a labyrinth with no dead ends to a musical station.
Pairing exercise with mental health support is a win-win; it provides physical benefits in addition to psychological ones. Stark County’s Mindfulness Walk received the Governor’s Award from the state’s arks and Recreation Association and now serves as the site of community mental health meet-ups, like a Walk for Suicide Awareness.

Takeaways

Mental health is an incredibly personal, often private process that many citizens don’t want their government too involved in. However, promoting good mental health, and providing resources for those struggling with illnesses, helps strengthen communities and build a better quality of life locally.
Local governments should be talking about mental health — but they need to do so respectfully without imposing on citizens’ privacy. By turning mental health into a common and accepted topic of conversation, and making resources available for those who need them, cities can help improve, and sometimes save, their residents’ lives.

Discussion

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LP

Lindsay Pica-Alfano

Co-founder at Govlaunch

AUTHOR

Status

In Progress

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