Mental Health Matters celebrates initiatives underway and those yet to come

Mike Wolanin | The Republic Cheryl Buffo, community health program lead for Columbus Regional Health, addresses community members during the Mental Health Matters annual report to the community at The Commons in Columbus, Ind., Tuesday, April 30, 2024.

In Mark Stewart’s role as president of United Way of Bartholomew County, he has seen residents already struggling with the taxing drain of mental illness further struggle when trying to locate desperately needed resources such as housing.

They often are unaware where to begin, exacerbating their mental state.

So the agency that reaches nearly one-third of the local population with its programs will launch a new website June 1 called United We Help.

It’s one of a number of new initiatives promoting and supporting mental health announced Tuesday at the annual meeting of Mental Health Matters at The Commons in downtown Columbus before an estimated 300 people.

“Poor mental health is often amplified when we cannot meet our most basic needs,” Stewart said. “It’s a tough spot to be in.”

The local Mental Health Matters team looked back at its kickoff last year and celebrated an array of other new programs and those still aimed to begin to strengthen the mental health of local residents. The timing of the gathering was intentional since May is national Mental Health Awareness Month.

A total of 26 percent of Bartholomew County residents experience fair or poor mental health compared to 13 percent of the nation, according to figures from Mental Health Matters leaders.

Mental Health Matters is a community-wide health initiative to address challenges and improve the mental health system for youth and adults in Bartholomew County, where an estimated 6 percent of the population of 83,000 citizens is living with a serious mental illness such as bipolar disorder or another diagnosis that can be debilitating. And fully half of that 6 percent group is unaware of their illness, according to local estimates.

A total of 17 percent of local residents have what is termed a non-serious mental illness such as anxiety or depression.

Ten percent of Bartholomew County children have non-serious mental illness, meaning mental health challenges that are severe enough to impair how they function at home, in school, or in the community.

The initiative team is working with nearly every conceivable agency and organization from social services to the arts to help foster solutions that will be inclusive and equitable, while simultaneously promoting the understanding that mental health is part of overall health.

Cheryl Buffo, project lead of Mental Health Matters, told the crowd that she, like many others, is learning as she goes.

“This is something that was kind of a big aha moment for me: Serious mental illnesses are not preventable and they’re not curable, but they are treatable, and that’s really key,” Buffo said. “So if we can provide people with early intervention, treatment, and support, people with serious mental illness can lead healthy, high-functioning lives.”

Jim Bickel, president and CEO of Columbus Regional Health that donated $1.2 million for the work of Mental Health Matters, touted some of the hospital entity’s long-term and recent mental health successes.

“Columbus Regional Health has been the sole adult inpatient crisis facility in our community for over three decades — a time when many other facilities closed their doors,” Bickel said. “And most recently, Columbus Regional Health’s Adult Inpatient Behavioral Health Unit was recognized as the nation’s top-scoring facility when it comes to patient and family satisfaction.”

That was followed by crowd applause.

Jim Roberts, superintendent of Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp., mentioned that a family engagement coordinator has been hired — and coming soon will be a partnership with the Cook Center to provide parent resources via the website that will go live in a few weeks.

He said it can help relieve some stress on families.

“I know that (for some families), things are going crazy some evening and they’re suddenly looking for answers,” Roberts said. “They’re not sure where to find those answers, but has thousands of resources as far as how you might be able to gather some information and find a contact person — a live person to talk to to find some information.”

Other local leaders spoke briefly regarding their recent successes and planned initiatives for the coming year. They were mayor Mary Ferdon; Eric Frey, executive director of administration for the city of Columbus; Carl Lienhoop, Bartholomew County commissioner; Judge Jim Worton, Superior Court 1; and Suzanne Koesel, CEO, Centerstone of Indiana.

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