Beyond Mental Health First Aid: Community Engagement for Mental Health

Every person has mental health that can be supported and promoted, and congregations and communities have the opportunity to improve lives not only through improving access to care, but also by cultivating communities that encourage all dimensions of wellness and are inclusive, welcoming, and supportive across all forms of diversity, including the full range of mental health experiences that exist within any community.

Since 2015, more than 1,350 participants from congregations and communities across the Episcopal Diocese of Texas have engaged in EHF-sponsored Mental Health First Aid trainings. These congregations have taken initial steps to support positive mental health in their communities and many seek to go deeper and join with others to strengthen mental health resources in their communities.

To support these congregations EHF is forming a Learning Community for Mental Health and Well-Being, as a next step for Episcopal congregations who have already done the introductory workshops and learning on mental health. It is designed to increase participants’ mental-health related knowledge, develop facilitation skills, and build connections across congregations in Texas with interests in promoting congregational and community well-being.

EHF’s Congregational Engagement team has partnered with consultants Anna Jackson, Alpinista Consulting and Lynda Frost, Lynfro Consulting to work with key congregations and help them connect with community partners and develop strategies for addressing emerging mental health needs in their communities. Both Jackson and Frost bring their extensive knowledge of mental health, strategic planning, and facilitation methods to help congregations explore their unique ideas and strengths to lend to their focus on mental health and well-being.

“One thing we really see and value in congregations, that maybe gets overlooked, is the social connection faith-communities provide,” said Jackson. “One of the things we experience is isolation and congregations are where people want to go first and have a profound strength in trust with individuals and communities.”

Congregations and faith communities have a huge opportunity to increase their capacity by simply being inviting places to gather and convene. This innate resource in cultivating and maintaining social connection also creates a vital opportunity for community engagement.

Congregations in the Diocese of Texas are now approaching mental health in their communities in a variety of ways. Below are two stories of congregations who are moving the needle on the mental health community initiatives and how they’ve utilized the consulting support EHF provided to develop their work:

Trinity Episcopal Church: The Woodlands

Trinity’s journey with Mental Health began with offering its physical space for Alcoholic Aonymous and 12-step meetings. It’s long history of community support continues now with additional support groups like Family to Family and peer support, in partnership with the local National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) chapter. The congregation has also hosted EHF-sponsored Adult and Youth Mental Health First Aid workshops community-wide.

“Trinity has always had a heart for the community,” said Brenda LaVar of Montgomery County Mental Health. “From the vantage point of the community, they know Trinity as a hub for community support. It has flourished in the last few years—they are truly the congregation for that.”

Rector Gerry Sevick’s leadership has been important to growing their mental health ministry. Last year Mental Health officially became a ministry of the parish.

“Gerry is behind anything NAMI and he really knows the support programs,” says Leslie Buck of Trinity.

Over the past decade, the suicide rate in Montgomery County has risen more than 83% to be one of the highest rates in the state. Substance use has also increased. To address these and other community mental health needs, Trinity has played an active role in bringing various partners to the table.

The community listening session, designed with the help of Anna and Lynda, served as a networking and learning opportunity for a variety of organizations and service providers in Montgomery County and a mechanism to explore opportunities to work together in the future. The gathering resulted in the formation of the Behavioral Health and Suicide Prevention Community Task Force in Montgomery County.

“Trinity was able to draw on their relationships and connections within the community—the partnership with NAMI was also key,” says Frost. “The result was having NAMI, the Sheriff’s office, the Local Mental Health Authority, all the agency related folks together with the advocates, which was really activating. Allied organizations focusing on a crisis.”

LaVar recalls expecting 40-50 attendees for the community listening session and participation exceeded all expectation with attendance of about 450, including the County Judge, Constable, and representatives from various faith-based organizations, agencies, and government entities.

Both Buck and LaVar attribute the success of the initial meeting and the growth of the Task Force to the groundwork done with Jackson and Frost to think through leveraging partnerships and facilitation practices for meetings.

“We are grateful to EHF for their support in making Anna and Lynda available,” said LaVar. “Having Lynda Frost as a resource for congregations interested in mental health is astounding.”

As of now, due to COVID-19, the family support groups and the Task Force meetings have moved to online platforms, but the work continues. The next general meeting of the Behavioral Health and Suicide Prevention Community Task Force will be held in November of 2020.


Christ Episcopal Church: Cedar Park

Christ Church in Cedar Park has always been interested in being an active and vibrant part of their community. For more than three years, Christ Church has promoted Living Compass, a wellness initiative, and has used many of its concepts as a foundation for the church’s programs. As the Outreach Ministry developed, members sought to better understand the needs of their community and enlisted the EHF’s help to build community engagement skills.

“We began a series of meetings and discussions to find the answer to a question posed to us by Eric Moen — what is the unacceptable reality that you see in your community?,” said Carol Monroe of Christ Church. “What we saw was a mental health desert.”

Geographically, Christ Church spans two counties and five municipalities and many mental health services. The church’s somewhat isolated location lacks many of the services and supports available in the larger Travis and neighboring Williamson County—this poses a unique challenge for access to mental health services in the area.

An early environmental scan of available resources for uninsured or underinsured residents with mental health needs uncovered an astonishing lack of services. The scan found that appointments for mental health evaluation have up to a six-month waiting period. Moreover, when appointments were available, some required up to 45 minutes of travel and the area does not have public transportation.

Once the congregation made the determination to advocate for quality mental health services for people living in this region of Central Texas, EHF offered consultants Anna Jackson and Lynda Frost to provide strategic planning and collaboration support.

The consultative process with Jackson and Frost provided direction on how to begin conversations with agencies who provide mental health services and who are impacted by clients with mental health needs. The community listening session convened agencies that had not previously met one another and soon became a monthly conversation to include more stakeholders including school districts, community centers, community mental health services, and more.

“They have been very helpful to us in a number of ways. They have helped us to focus and clarify our thinking and our approach to the problems we are trying to tackle,” said Monroe. “They have given us tools that turn problems on their heads and make us look at our struggles from a new perspective. Always a helpful thing, though not always a comfortable one.”

With the consultative support, Christ Church has been able to cultivate new relationships in the community and in the mental health sector to address the gap between counties.

As a final word, Carol Monroe says, “The church is not a mental health provider and it is not a business in which we should find ourselves. What we are is a community resource to help our neighbors find the help that can and should be available to them.”

Next steps for the committee are planning a field trip to several places around the state that seem to have solved the problem of working across-jurisdictions. The team is looking to learn from others as a vital part of their approach.

For more information on ways your congregation can approach mental health in your community or to become a part of the Learning Community please contact us!