Mental health awareness is increasing in Fort Wayne—along with culturally competent services

This story is part of Input Fort Wayne’s Solutions Series, made possible by support from the United Way of Allen County, the NiSource FoundationNIPSCOBrightpoint, and others in Northeast Indiana. The 10-part, 10-month series explores how our regional community is addressing residents’ essential needs during the pandemic. Read the first story here.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. As people continue adjusting to the ever-changing ways the COVID-19 pandemic has upended many aspects of daily life, mental health has also been impacted.

Before the pandemic, 19 percent of Americans experienced some form of mental illness, and 46 percent were predicted to meet the criteria for a diagnosable mental health condition at some point in their lives.

Since COVID, the number of people looking for help with anxiety and depression has risen, young people are struggling more, thoughts of suicide are higher, substance abuse has increased, and overdoses have spiked.

For marginalized people and communities of color, the pandemic has been even more challenging. Rates of suicidal ideation are high for LGBTQ+ youth. According to the 2021 State of Mental Health in America report from Mental Health America, “the COVID-19 pandemic and the secondary impacts of the pandemic such as effects on food, housing, and economic security have had a disproportionate impact on Black, indigenous, and other communities of color. These, in turn, can create larger impacts on the mental health of individuals within these communities.”

The ratio of people who need mental health services compared to available mental health providers is 670:1.

In Indiana, research from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows the percentage of adults with any mental illness is 22.5 percent, which is slightly higher than the national rate at 19 percent. The rates for suicide and drug overdoses are also higher in Indiana than the national average. The Hoosier state ranks 45th for adults with any mental illness being able to get their treatment needs met. COVID-19 has made an already challenging mental health landscape worse and increased the need for mental health and substance abuse care.

Here in Fort Wayne, several organizations are hard at work trying to meet the mental health needs of local residents. Some were doing this work before the pandemic in 2020; others have found themselves opening their doors in the middle of the crisis and diving into the deep end to help.

We talked to five organizations to learn more about who they are, how they address mental health needs, how COVID-19 has impacted what they do, and what they hope for the future of mental health and the residents they serve.

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Audrey Mumma is the Mission Advancement Manager at Mental Health America of Northeast Indiana (MHANI).

“Our mission is to promote the mental and emotional health of our community through advocacy, education, and support services,” Mumma says. Audrey Mumma

Founded in 1954, MHANI has been serving the community for 67 years by providing mental health training, resources, and advocacy for people with mental health conditions and their families, and by offering direct support, housing, and guardianship services.

“We’ve been kind of a quiet organization until recently,” Mumma says. “Within the last couple of years, we’ve seen a lot of growth in our programs, funding, and we can make more of an impact in the community.”

Undoubtedly, part of the increased visibility has been due to demands stemming from the pandemic. But according to Mumma, even after the onset of COVID, the mental health landscape didn’t change much.

“Before COVID, there were some issues with how needs were being met,” she says. “We have community mental health centers and independent counselors and services that are helping people. All of them are working as hard as they can to help the community, but they’re all struggling with a shortage of mental health professionals.”

Peer support specialists on Parkview Health's HART team Frederica Rogers and Misha’Le Nagel.

In Indiana, the ratio of people who need mental health services compared to available mental health providers is 670:1, making the state among the worst-ranked at 43. In addition, there are challenges with both funding and insurance that also make it hard on providers.

“Mental health isn’t always at the top of the budget, statewide or nationwide, so they’re all kind of struggling with being under-resourced and understaffed,” Mumma says. “That was an issue even before COVID. There are also a lot of challenges with insurance. There are a lot of insurance providers that don’t cover mental health counseling, therapy, treatment, or medication.”

According to Mumma, the pandemic made everything that existed prior to 2020 worse, but the silver lining is that awareness of mental health is increasing, which could lead to more people seeking help, more funding, and more innovative ways to provide services.

“I think the pandemic made mental health more of a popular topic to talk about,” she says. “It’s something people are getting a little more comfortable with. We’ve had tons of requests for interviews over the past year, wanting to know more about mental health needs and resources. There’s been a shift toward people realizing what it’s like to feel anxious all the time or feel depressed or isolated.”

Mumma is hopeful the increased awareness will ultimately lead to more people understanding how common, yet important mental health is, more funding for resource and staffing shortages, and more people joining the mental health field themselves.

“We focus on education because we know that through education people can learn more about mental health, and then it won’t be such a taboo or stigmatized topic for them. People have an understanding that it’s very common. People with mental health conditions aren’t scary or violent. Recovery is possible. People can get better. It’s OK to seek help when you need it.”

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As the largest employer in Northeast Indiana with hospitals, clinics, and offices across the 11-county region, Parkview Health is often one of the first resources that comes to mind when Fort Wayne residents think about healthcare. Connie Kerrigan

Connie Kerrigan is a registered nurse who leads the community support services division for the Parkview Behavioral Health Institute. Kerrigan says that Parkview’s health system has evolved over time and expanded its offerings beyond acute, inpatient settings. The goal is prevention through upstreaming to address the root causes of mental health issues and helping people before they get to the point of needing hospitalization.

“Our goal would be to not have to hospitalize people and have them get the care they need each and every day,” Kerrigan says.

Part of getting people the help they need before problems become too severe, however, involves destigmatizing mental health for people who are reluctant to seek help.

“There’s always that stigma that goes along with mental health,” Kerrigan says. “We really focused on how we can try to help normalize that and help people understand that mental health is just like physical health. It’s on the same continuum, and we really need mental health each and every day to be able to function.”

Combatting that stigma is crucial as people try to navigate their lives during a global pandemic. Data provided by the Fort Wayne Police Department.

“A lot of the same things we see today, we saw before COVID,” Kerrigan says. “Things are just a little more intensified. We’re seeing increased rates of overdoses in our community, unfortunately. Isolation has helped contribute to that. We always say that the opposite of addiction is connection. With the pandemic, there’s no connection with people. That leads to more isolation, more feelings of self-doubt and self-worth, and people are just trying to just cope.”

Of the many substance abuse challenges in the U.S., the opioid epidemic is the worst drug crisis in American history, and prior to the pandemic, it was the nation’s largest public health crisis.

In 2017, an average of one person died from a drug overdose every three days in Allen County—with fatal drug poisonings up 70 percent from 2016 alone. From 2013 to 2017, the crisis cost Allen County more than $1.1 billion in damages, according to the Indiana University Kelley School of Business Research Center.

In April 2018, Parkview Behavioral Health hired its first Director of Opioid Treatment and Prevention Services to address the fallout of the opioid epidemic across the Parkview Health Network.

Despite all the breakthroughs and work that has been done to combat the issue, Kerrigan says the region’s number of residents affected by the opioid crisis is still much higher this year due to the pandemic. According to the American Medical Association, as a result of the challenges presented by COVID-19, “nearly every state has reported an outbreak or sustained increase in drug overdose as well as ongoing concerns for those with a mental illness or substance use disorder.”

In Fort Wayne, reporting from WANE-TV showed that between January and June of 2019, there were 348 non-fatal overdoses compared to 541 from January to June of 2020. Looking at May alone, there were 37 non-fatal overdoses in 2019 compared to 129 in 2020.

Even so, Kerrigan is thankful for the progress Parkview and others have made in recent years to combat the epidemic, which has made the challenge more bearable now than it would be otherwise.

“I think if we hadn’t been doing some of the things we had been doing before the pandemic, we’d be seeing an even larger increase,” Kerrigan says. “If work hadn’t already been done, I can’t even imagine what it would be like.”

Peer support specialists on Parkview Health's HART team include, from left to right: Cara Teders, Lindsey Hernandez, Misha’Le Nagel, Jeremy Mehay, and Frederica Rogers.

The isolation and stress of the pandemic has also led to a rise in suicide and domestic violence, two issues Parkview also works to address through the use of Suicide Obviation and Support (SOS) navigators, which provide support for suicidal crisis and domestic violence victims.

Kerrigan says the full extent of mental health challenges from the pandemic are yet to be seen in many ways, since the stress of living through a pandemic will eventually lead to people experiencing post-traumatic stress. These invisible challenges are likely to affect the broader local community and workforce, too.

“I think it’s time we wake up and realize now that everyone has been impacted,” Kerrigan says. “We’ve laid a good groundwork, but it’s still not always recognized that mental health is impacting more people than one might think.”

It’s also important to remember that help is available, and mental health can be improved. 

“People do get better,” Kerrigan says. “That’s the good news. Hope is here. It does take some time sometimes, but finding the right strategies and things that work for you are so important for you to be the best version of yourself.”

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The Center for Nonviolence is a local nonprofit organization that provides education, support, and advocacy to end domestic violence, as well as other forms of violence. While CFN’s primary focus is not directly mental health, its work is closely related.

“Technically, we’re not doing therapy,” says Elka Jackson, Grant Writer and       Executive Directorship Team Member at CFN. “We can feel very much like we’re doing therapy. There is no doubt that we’re seeing serious mental health issues with our clients, especially as the result of COVID. We have found ourselves over the past year making far more referrals out to mental health services for clients and forming closer connections to mental health providers, agencies, and organizations to support both clients and staff.”

As many in the mental health field have indicated, COVID is making existing challenges worse and, according to Jackson, highlighting gaps in services.

“Before COVID-19, there were definitely gaps in services for historically marginalized populations—gaps in services for Black people, Latinx, people from Burma, and other immigrant and refugee populations in Fort Wayne,” Jackson says. “There are gaps in terms of culturally competent services. There are gaps we see in services to men.”

There are gaps in mental health services to men.

To address some of these gaps, several local organizations have made an effort to provide culturally competent services to communities of color, including CFN. CFN has several advisory groups that help inform its programming. The mission of the People of Afrikan Descent Advisory Group (PADAG) is to educate, empower, awaken, and advance the quality of life for Black people and Black communities in Fort Wayne.

One of the major programmatic goals for PADAG this year is to focus on the mental health and wellness of Fort Wayne’s Black residents in the wake of the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and racism.

“We’re trying to do our part with PADAG,” Jackson says. “It’s so hard to get Black folks to talk about our mental health issues and our trauma. That’s the next hurdle to cross for us.”

The Fort Wayne Center for Nonviolence is located at 235 Creighton Ave.

Still, the isolation that came with the pandemic took a toll on the work Jackson and the rest of the CFN do and contributed to why many clients didn’t seek help for their mental health.

“In our Latinx program, there were women who literally could not get out of their houses for months because of abusive partners having so much extra power and control as a result of what was going on with COVID,” Jackson says. “COVID was just this wonderful little gift for abusers. An abuser now had this person under their control for nearly 24 hours a day.”

Unfortunately, the pandemic has disproportionately impacted communities of color that already have stigmas around getting help for mental health. It’s Jackson’s hope that marginalized people will start to overcome those stigmas and seek the help they deserve.

“I would like for poor, Black, queer, Latinx, immigrant, and other marginalized people to see mental wellness as a right that they have as a citizen, as a human being, and as someone who is in this community,” Jackson says. “I would like people to be able to overcome the shame, stigma, and embarrassment and know that living with any mental health issue is a part of being a human being. We’re all on the spectrum of mental health somewhere.”

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Part of the challenge of addressing Fort Wayne’s mental health needs is increasing the number of culturally competent providers who can personally connect with and offer relevant help to communities of color.

Janell and Aaron Lane, who founded Courageous Healing, Inc., in 2014 and celebrated the grand opening of their physical location this month, have set out to do just that.

“The focus of Courageous Healing is mental health services and support that focuses on culturally centered care,” Janell says. “We have a culturally centered approach to everything. We will serve any population, but we specialize in Black and brown populations.”

Janell and Aaron Lane are the wife-and-husband team behind Courageous Healing, Inc.

Aaron notes that while there are a lot of local organizations providing mental health services and doing great work, proximity still matters, particularly in neighborhoods dominated by People of Color and populations that lack access to personal vehicles and transportation. Although Courageous Healing has been offering its services virtually, it was important for the Lanes to have their brick-and-mortar office located in the community they serve at 2013 S. Anthony Blvd.

“I think proximity is an issue because very few of the existing mental health organizations are in proximity to the most underserved populations, which includes Southeast Fort Wayne,” Aaron says. “The expectation is that populations would come to them to receive services, but if you don’t have transportation or you’re dealing with all the barriers that these populations often have to navigate, there’s no one in proximity for them to be able to access services.”

Aaron Lane

The Courageous Healing team consists of all therapists of color. That, in and of itself, is often appealing to populations that are hesitant about seeking help.

“We’re in the business of serving and caring for people,” Aaron says. “We have to care for people the way they need to be cared for—not the way you think is best. The only way you can know how to do that is by talking to the people and meeting them where they are. That’s one thing that sets us apart.”

Having both grown up in Southeast Fort Wayne themselves, the Lanes have maintained strong connections there. Now, they’re combining their street knowledge with their education in mental health, social work, and organizational leadership.

“We follow best practices, but we give ourselves permission to tweak it to fit the populations that we’re serving,” says Janell, who is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor. “We tend to have a more direct approach. Because of Black and brown populations being more direct in their communication styles, it doesn’t take us as long to build a rapport with our clients. They’re direct, and we’re direct. We get right to business.”

Janell Lane

While Courageous Healing is a welcome, innovative addition to a local community in need of its services, adhering to a culturally competent and holistic mental health model in Fort Wayne hasn’t been easy.

“It’s hard to do this kind of work unapologetically,” Janell says. “The conservative culture here makes it hard to have this focus without having to explain it or defend it. It’s hard to be unapologetic about it, but we are.”

Aaron Lane

The Lanes believe that being unapologetic about their mission, who they are, who they cater to, and how they serve will be critical to breaking down some of the stigmas local Black and brown people have about mental health and getting help.

“We give ourselves permission to just be in spaces and show up in the fullness of our personalities,” Janell says. “We want people to understand that healing is possible. Not only is it possible; it’s accessible. Not only is it accessible; it’s designed for you. That’s powerful.”

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Alice Jordan-Miles wears many hats. She is the Director of the Indiana Suicide Prevention Coalition, the Behavioral Health, and Family Studies Institute at PFW, and now Bienestar sin Fronteras (Wellness without Borders). 

With support from The Lutheran Foundation, the Behavioral Health and Family Studies Institute at Purdue University Fort Wayne, St. Joseph Community Health Foundation, and Parkview Behavioral Health, Bienestar is located in Connect Allen County on the bottom floor of the old Sears building at 201 E. Rudisill Blvd. It provides free mental health services to uninsured Latino populations in Northeast Indiana in their native language by native-born therapists.

“I always knew my people struggled in silence,” Jordan-Miles says. “I’ve always had a dream of helping my people with their mental health.”
 

Jordan-Miles says she’s constantly contacted by people of the Latino community looking for help, particularly those who are undocumented.

“If you’re undocumented, you can’t get insurance,” she says. “If a counseling session costs $150, it’s a Friday, they have $175 left in their budget, and they still have to buy groceries and put gas in the tank, what decision do you think they’re going to make?”

To help residents afford mental health services, Jordan-Miles gathered about 10 people who had been working in silos on similar issues. Once she had a plan in place, The Lutheran Foundation helped bring it to fruition with three years of funding.

The Lutheran Foundation champions mental health,” Jordan-Miles says. “Marcia Haaff, the CEO of The Lutheran Foundation, called and said, ‘Alice, the Lutheran Foundation believes in mental health. It’s one of our strategic initiatives that we intentionally reach out and meet the mental health needs of Latinos, so we’re going to fund Bienestar.’”

Pictured are: Back row (Left to Right): Noel Garza, Rolando Sosa, Babra Chakanyuka, Liliane Carroll, Cristina Jimenez, Yessica Lawson-Gonzalez. Front row (Left to Right): Emily Bayer, Alice Jordan-Miles (Project Director), Yanet Cordia.

Jordan-Miles says nothing like Bienestar has been done in Fort Wayne before to her knowledge.

“There’s so much to do, and the need is so great,” she says. “It’s been a challenge, but with God and the people who have the same passion that I do, we’re going to get it done.”

Bienestar officially launched its programming on May 11, 2021, but work began well before that.

“When we got the funding in October 2020, El Mexicano did an amazing story on Bienestar,” Jordan-Miles says. “Once they did that article, even though we hadn’t officially kicked off, we had more than 150 people on our waiting list.”

By the time things started in May, Bienestar therapists had already provided 177 sessions to local people in need. As Jordan-Miles explains, “Trauma does not appreciate or acknowledge a timeline.”

And during the pandemic, many needs are immediate.

Jordan-Miles says her biggest dream is to destigmatize help-seeking behavior for all people, and one of the few upsides of COVID is that more people are starting to understand that mental health affects everyone.

“I am trying to champion mental health and mental wellness so that people don’t run from it,” she says. “That’s my biggest challenge and my biggest goal—truly having a culture shift in how people view mental health. My efforts are genuine and sincere, and I hope that Bienestar will help people come out of the shadows and embrace their mental health.”
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