Community development and well-being rapidly are becoming major foci for behavioral healthcare. If the field is to change the power dynamics that sustain systemic racism, the social and physical determinants of health that lead to trauma responses and behavioral health conditions, and the isolation and poverty of historically excluded groups, then it will be necessary to engage, listen to, and support community members themselves as they confront and address these fundamental issues.
On Tuesday, the Rural Behavioral Health Initiative of the International Initiative on Mental Health Leadership (IIMHL) hosted representatives from five rural counties in Texas: Bastrop, Brooks, Morris, Nacogdoches and Victoria.
The purpose of the event was to learn first-hand some lessons about rural community development and well-being. Future meetings will host similar communities from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other areas of the U.S. The goal of the initiative is to share best practices among nations that promote rural communities that are healthy, resilient and inclusive. I serve as secretary of the initiative.
Each of the five Texas communities has been funded for three years by the Hogg Foundation under a program called Collaborative Approaches to Well-Being in Rural Communities to promote better community resilience, physical and mental health, and personal and family well-being. Their current efforts focus on strategy development. The foundation expects to fund each of them for an additional five years to implement the plans and strategies that currently are being crafted.
Here, I would like to draw out some of the early learnings shared by the five communities. Most foundational are the following three guides offered by one participant:
- Always listen to your community
- Redefine inclusivity
- Get things done through relationships and interactions
For us, these simple guides contain several especially important implications. First, each community is the source of energy for solving its own problems. Second, historically excluded groups—minorities, persons who are homeless—need to be brought into community life. Third, relationships and interactions are the basis for solving community problems.
Another community member spoke of moving from an approach based upon traditional coalitions to one based upon networks. A moment’s reflection will suggest why: Coalitions reflect the current status quo; networks are generative of new relationships and community structures. For example, in one community, the project leads repeatedly visited a site at which homeless persons were served meals. While there, they developed relationships with the participants and discussed with them how the lives of homeless persons could be improved in that community.
Once networks are developed, shared leadership can begin to emerge. This was described by one community participant as “leaderful” groups. Such groups can work together to engage everyone in the community. Engagement can be for the purpose of discussing the root causes of a community’s problems or participating in a community-wide festival for everyone that celebrates a community’s successes.
Our hats are off to the five communities, the Hogg Foundation, Dr. Octavio Martinez, its president, and Tammy Heinz, its project officer, for leading us toward a much better understanding of how rural communities can be improved. We thank them for this, and we invite them back to share further results once the project implementation phase is underway.
Much was learned during the two hours of presentation and discussion with members of the five communities. For our purposes, the major lesson is truly clear: Communities can be improved by engaging all members in the endeavor, and intractable problems can be understood, addressed, and changed by the community itself—a remarkable result.
Ron Manderscheid, PhD, is president and CEO of NACBHDD and NARMH.