Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Mental Health Training for Faith-based Organizations

Part of my college years included being employed as a church secretary. Regularly, a middle-aged couple would stop by our office asking for some sandwiches.  The other secretary always treated them respectfully and would slap together some bread and butter.  Sometimes one of the priests would attend to our guests or sit and visit with them while they munched. I was so thankful that my co-workers were able to help these people because I, on the other hand, had a paralyzing fear of helping those on the fray - stemming from a childhood experience that would bloom in full color everytime I would see this couple walk into the church.

It was a frustrating internal struggle - to want to help and yet be fearful of it. As an adult, this anxiety is something that I work hard to overcome.  When my gorge starts to rise, squeezing my neck, a friend's prayer comes to mind like a mantra: "May we see the face of God in everyone we meet."

So, when I heard about this project, I jumped on it immediately.

Tri-Valley Opportunity Council's mission is to create opportunities to improve the quality of life for people and communities.  One of their latest projects includes partnering with Northwestern Mental Health Center, Inc and Polk County Social Services to provide mental health training for faith-based organizations (FBOs). The first training will be held June 8-9, 2010 at the Evangelical Covenant Church in Crookston, MN. This two-day, all day training includes certificates of completion for Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) and Psychological First Aid (PFA). Cost is $10 per person and to register, please contact Mallory Smith at (218) 281-3940 or

How did the idea for this project come about?

Two things happened. Four years ago Tri-Valley applied for a federal grant to build the capacity of faith-based organizations and they didn't receive it.  Today, they're currently in the fourth year of a six-year planning grant which is specifically for families with children who have mental health disorders. They were faced with the question of what services and resources were going to be in place to continue the programming provided by this grant. Tri-Valley identified a need to reach out to faith-based organizations because that's where the people who need human services are going first.

Tri-Valley had interviews and held focus groups to find out what faith-based organizations are experiencing and what they need in terms of resources and support. The feedback they got is that FBOs are really concerned about mental health issues, drug and alcohol abuse, parenting, and access to resources for all of these needs.  They also learned that, while people may know where to go for monetary assistance, the FBOs provide the necessary emotional support.

Why is this project important?

In Northwest Minnesota there is overall poverty with young people leaving the area; leaving behind an older population and no economic growth. This region is a conglomerate of small agricultural communities and access to resources can be a challenge. For example resources for kids with autism might be 60 miles away. Geography is an issue. In this kind of work, while some resources are available through the internet, building relationships with people is critical.

Generally these relationships tend to be created on an informal basis, for example individuals working in human services might reach out personally through their own church. However, while the formalization of this relationship building between FBOs and human service organizations exists in some places, it is new in our region of Minnesota and generally a ground-breaking movement.

Most people are connected to some kind of faith-based organization and feel more comfortable seeking help initially through their church.  Human services is great at providing training and resources, but not so great at giving the emotional support and that's why the FBOs are so important. For implementing long-term, lasting change, the FBO community is a key component. People want emotional support and they can get it for no cost at a church or other faith-based organization.

Therefore, this project is important because it's a win-win for everybody. The training and resources that human service providers can give to FBOs are things that help all of us provide better services to our communities. The FBOs help by supplying volunteers, making resources available, and by reaching the people who need these services. They can also explain and help people understand the process and what to expect when reaching out to human service organizations. Together they can do mutual information sharing to best serve the people in our communities.

Why is your organization taking this initiative and not governmental agencies?

Tri-Valley is a private, non-profit organization and a community action agency. Government organizations have some trepidation working with faith-based groups because of the issue of separation of Church and State. Other non-profits can also potentially be fearful because they see it as a competition for resources and funds. We see the collaboration with faith-based organizations as another opporutnity to serve the people of our community. We're all in this together.  In these economic times when families are struggling, you can't do it alone, so we all need to play a part in it.

For more information about this project and future trainings, please contact Tracey Sundeen at