Tri-County Mental Health Service’s Prevention Program consists of only four people, but its reach impacts thousands throughout Clay, Platte and Ray counties.
Throughout the past 23 years, TCMHS Prevention programs and the hundreds of volunteers they work with have received state and national recognition. The organization is even becoming a national model for its locally focused coalition work that saves lives and tragedy throughout the Northland.
A key to the effort is the 16 community groups under the umbrella of the Northland Coalition and Ray County Coalition. A related effort involves Youth with Vision, a coalition of high school students who develop programs to encourage healthy lifestyles and advocate against underage drinking/tobacco and other substance use.
The work begins with Tri-County’s four-member prevention team: Manager Vicky Ward, Program Development Specialist Laura Bruce, Youth Prevention Specialist Kelsey Prather and Prevention Specialist Kara White.
Their successes are built on a “System of Change” model that promotes grassroots coalitions throughout Clay, Platte and Ray counties. Although they share goals, the community coalitions are urged to adopt their own priorities and strategies.
“There are shared needs, but the coalitions individually develop evidence-based programs for their areas,” Ward explained. “Then we develop or find the resources to help.”
The technique is both logical and successful. “What strategy works for Park Hill may not work in Richmond, but they have the same goals of protecting the health and safety of their youth,” she said. “That allows for autonomy within the communities, but we help all of them move forward.”
Recent anti-tobacco efforts are good examples. Lawson’s Community In Action focused on chewing tobacco used by young people in that rural area. Liberty Alliance for Youth, Staley TRY and Park Hill CAFY aimed more at the growing practice of “vaping.”
There are also increasing programs targeting mental wellness. “The young people are learning that if they hear a friend talking about being depressed, they can take action by encouraging them to talk to a trusted adult,” Ward said.
High school students in Youth With Vision are also members of their local community-based coalitions, working with adult members on planning and projects. “That way the coalition is not a group of adults saying, ‘Here’s what we need to do to have an impact on young people,” Ward explained. In one safe-prom promotion, Youth With Vision members promoted the message, ‘Puking isn’t pretty, and hangovers aren’t handsome.’’
“The students liked that, and it resonated,” Ward noted. “But it’s not something the adults would have thought of.”
From billboards to public service announcements, visits to Jefferson City or Washington, the groups are busy virtually year-round. Some activities focus on fundraising, while others target specific issues like the use of drugs.
In Excelsior Springs, the Supporting Abuse Free Environments (SAFE) coalition was just selected as one of only 92 organizations nationally to earn a Drug Free Community (DFC) grant to prevent substance use among youth. All of the efforts have an underlying goal, what Ward calls “social change.”
“The whole idea is shifting that norm,” she said. “Social change happens slowly but, when they do, you have a difference that sticks.”
Cigarette use is one of the nation’s most dramatic shifts, illustrating how something once “doctor approved” became rare. The team hopes to change opinions on areas such as underage drinking. Other concerns include vapor products, hookahs and marijuana edibles, which Ward finds especially dangerous.
Collaboration is a major component in achieving success. The prevention program works with 12 sectors, including parents, educators, law enforcement, business owners and managers, the faith community and professionals in several fields.
“That not only brings input from diverse groups within the community, but also helps re-enforce our messages,” Ward said. “If young people are seeing business managers and limo drivers promoting a nondrinking message, they realize it’s not just their parents saying that. It’s the entire community.”
Tri-County Mental Health Services offers mental health care assistance at its main location near the Maple Woods campus, and at locations throughout Clay, Platte and Ray Counties. For more information, call (816) 468-0400 or visit www.tri-countymhs.org.