BY BRIDGET ROBY
For the first time in its four-year history, the Resilient Communities Project is partnering with a county, rather than a city—Carver County. This year’s partnership is unique and exciting in the diversity of community stakeholders it brings: four county departments, the Carver County Community Development Agency, SouthWest Transit, Eastern Carver County School District, the Carver County Historical Society, and the Cities of Victoria, Chaska, and Watertown.
Working with a wide range of community partners means that we are also working on a new and diverse range of projects that span academic disciplines. New this year is a series of projects related to health and human services—a focus that has strengthened RCP’s partnership with the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. Five public health masters students have launched year-long projects related to public health and community engagement in social services in partnership with the local school districts and public health department. The projects range in topic from better understanding mental health in schools and increasing Latino family participation in community education to recommending ways to promote resiliency among youth with adverse childhood experiences.
Two public health students have teamed up to investigate the issue of mental health in Central School District—an issue that came to the forefront after two public suicides in 2012. Results of a 2013 statewide survey revealed that Central School students have higher-than-state-average rates of mental health problems on measures such as depression, feelings of hopelessness, and suicide ideation.
“The community has suffered tragedy in the past and is really looking to offer strategies to families to cope with and understand mental health,” said Sam Downs, the project lead and a Public Health Program Specialist for Carver County Public Health. “This project will help determine priorities for addressing mental health issues in youth and possible strategies or solutions to address these.”
Students Ellen Howard and Erin Linden are currently setting up interviews with stakeholders in the community to explore perspectives on mental health needs, gaps, and solutions to address child and adolescent mental health in Central School District. Based on their analyses of these interviews, the students will offer recommendations for how the school district can better serve student mental health needs.
Along a similar vein, student Ashley Barrett is working with Public Health to explore resiliency among children with adverse childhood experiences—also known as ACEs. Adverse childhood experiences are stressful or traumatic experiences early in life, including abuse, neglect, and a range of household dysfunction. Experiencing one or more ACE increases an individual’s risk of numerous behaviors or conditions in later years, including smoking, obesity, alcohol abuse, drug use/dependence, depression, and anxiety disorders.
“It is important for Carver County to understand ACEs and resiliency because ACEs affect a child's mental and physical wellbeing, and the effects have the potential to last into adulthood,” Barrett said. “If we are able to understand how we can have a positive impact on children early in life, we can potentially prevent these children from engaging in risky health behaviors such as smoking, binge drinking, lack of exercise, etc.”
Through qualitative data collection and analysis, Barrett will assess what initiatives currently exist within schools and the community at large to promote resiliency among youth, and to recommend additional programs to combat the negative effects of ACEs.
Meanwhile, student Grace Sianghio is partnering with the Eastern Carver County School District to increase Latino family participation in community education. The school district offers Family Literacy classes for parents with young children who are interested in learning English while being supported in their role as parents. Important health topics like immunizations and early childhood screenings are incorporated into the classes, which meet four days per week. Through a series of community discussions and focus groups, Sianghio is seeking to investigate how the school district can improve the relevance of its classes for Latino families and therefore increase participation.
“The Family Literacy class is intended to promote parent and child education on the grounds of a mother’s education being the number one indicator of student success,” Sianghio wrote in her project proposal. “Based on its curriculum, increased enrollment holds the potential to improve health outcomes among the Latino population because they will have been introduced to health resources, health indicators, and health-promoting activities within the context of the local system.”
The county public health department is also looking for ways to increase the relevance of its services for underrepresented groups, focusing specifically on residents of mobile home parks in the area. Student Sam Rosner is working with Public Health Specialist Tami LaGow to better understand the health needs, barriers, and priorities of the county’s largest mobile home communities. After compiling and analyzing available demographic data this fall, Rosner is now launching a series of focus groups within the parks to hear from residents about what health issues matter to them. Sustainability and resilience in Carver County means more than just a healthy environment. It means a strong economy, engaged community, and healthy people, too.
Bridget Roby is a Master of Public Health student at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health focusing on maternal and child health.