Mental health and affordable housing top local priority list | Local News

At one point or another, many people have probably gathered around a conference table to propose goals and improvements for the workplace, whether in a giant corporation, a family business, a local government or a non-profit organization.

Ideas are put together in an electronic document or printed in a notebook, and they stay there.

A recent effort by two large Fredericksburg-area entities brought together surveys and meetings with approximately 100 organizations over a period of nearly a year to develop a Community Health Improvement Plan, or CHIP. Those involved believe the plan will not have a chance to gather dust.

“It’s not a pie in the sky,” said Barb Barlow, executive director of Mental Health of America of Fredericksburg. “For every strategy listed here, you will find an entity accepting responsibility.”

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In addition, the agency named in each goal will sign a memorandum of understanding with the Rappahannock Area Health District, which first partnered with Mary Washington Healthcare, to develop the plan. There will be quarterly reviews and updates by the group’s core team, who will also revise the goals as the public suggests more ideas.

“What you see here is from people who came to the table ready to go,” said Michelle Wagaman, director of prevention services for the Rappahannock Area Community Services Board. “The only things listed in the plan are the things people commit to doing.”

Mental Health America of Fredericksburg and the RACSB feature prominently in CHIP because mental health has been ranked as the top priority for the region, which includes Fredericksburg and counties of Caroline, King George, Spotsylvania and Stafford.

The two agencies are also in the crosshairs for the strategies of the third priority: access to health care. Some of the goals boil down to a specific measure, like teaching 50 elderly and disabled residents a year how to use Fredericksburg Regional Transportation or the FRED bus system to get to medical appointments.

The second priority identified – affordable housing – has caused “kind of a moment of pause” among organizing partners who focus on public health and health care, said Devyn Bell, community engagement specialist for the district of local health.

She helped coordinate the effort and initially wondered how housing fit into the plan. Then, the more she thought about necessities like food, water, and a roof over people’s heads, the more she recognized their importance.

“When basic community needs aren’t being met, like affordable housing, it’s really hard to focus on higher needs like mental health, education and things like that,” Bell said. “Affordable housing really has a bigger health component.”

And an even more important element may be the money to implement the strategies. The Mary Washington Hospital Foundation and Stafford Hospital Foundation have grants of up to $5,000 each that can be requested, at any time, and larger annual grants to support the goals identified in the CHIP.

“This partnership with RAHD and other community organizations represents our shared dedication to the health and well-being of the Fredericksburg area,” said Xavier Richardson, chairman of the hospital’s foundations and senior vice president of MWHC.

MENTAL HEALTH

The partner organizations first developed a Community Health Needs Assessment which identified 14 needs after surveys and interviews, Bell said. Then the core team – eight health district representatives and Mary Washington Healthcare – narrowed down the list to eight priorities.

Representatives of a hundred community organizations and members of the public gathered during the spring meetings. Participants received $1,000 in Monopoly money and were asked to put their money where their mouth is, Bell said, by dropping C-notes into buckets for each priority.

“When we were counting, sanity definitely hit the peak,” Bell said.

Many of the strategies focus on suicide prevention and include expanding programs already in place. For example, by June 2025, MHAFred is responsible for introducing Signs of Suicide to middle and high school students in each local partner school district. The agency will also expand its program to youth groups, private and home schools, juvenile detention centers and underserved communities.

Similarly, the RACSB will continue to teach Mental Health First Aid, which prepares participants to respond to issues such as suicide threats, to at least 10% of staff at each interested school. Just last week, the agency trained school nurses, Wagaman said.

The fact that mental health needs are identified as the region’s top priority – especially after the COVID-19 pandemic has caused even more crises – provides validation to the work being done, she said.

“It’s a way to help increase education and reduce the stigma around mental health,” Wagaman said, “and the more we can talk about it and share the resources we have and help the community get well know, the healthier community we’ll be overall.

HOUSING NEEDS

Susan Doepp, a South Stafford County resident who manages several properties in the area, attended the CHIP sessions because she was “alarmed by the area’s inaction on affordable housing.”

Earlier this year, a two-story Colonial home she manages came on the market for a rental price of $2,400 a month. At least 10 of the 15 people who inquired about it had housing vouchers, intended to help pay rent for low-income people. None of them were financially qualified, and she was shocked at how many people had vouchers but no place to use them.

Like Bell, Doepp has come to view affordable housing as a necessity, but thinks society has a different attitude toward those who don’t make enough money to rent or buy in today’s market.

“If you see someone on the side of the road dying of thirst, you give them water. But if you see someone struggling to afford housing, the attitude of so many people is bad luck, work harder,” Doepp said, adding that she was happy to see the topic get such a high score. “We can’t hide our heads in the sand, we can’t deny that the people around us are struggling through no fault of their own.”

Chip Boyles, who joined the George Washington Regional Commission as executive director in November, will put together a task force and framework by December and come up with strategies to address the issue by December 2023. He is also responsible for meeting with government officials on the state and local level.

Boyles worked on similar issues in the Charlottesville area where a survey showed some families spent up to 72% of their monthly income on housing needs and transportation.

“It doesn’t leave money for other things they need for life,” he said.

He and his team used the average salary of a public school teacher with one or two children and found that there weren’t many houses available in that price range.

“I think it would be the same in any area where you have a growing population, and Fredericksburg is one of them,” Boyles said. “One of our biggest issues is that it’s such a wonderful place and so many people want to live here.”

HEALTH CARE ACCESS

The pandemic has shown the disparities that exist between blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, seniors and people with low incomes in terms of access to health care, according to CHIP. The plan identifies several specific goals that utilize community organizations, such as the YMCA, the Region’s Healthy Generations Agency on Aging, and Fredericksburg Area Health and Support Services.

Goals range from providing HIV testing to 100 people in remote low-income neighborhoods to running at least four health education and literacy, or HEAL, programs at local libraries and community centers throughout the region.

The health district and MWHC will also work to raise awareness of Unite Us, a national platform that lists service providers in all areas, not only in health care or mental health services, but also for childcare and housing, Bell said. It’s similar to a hotline program Mental Health America of Fredericksburg has operated for 12 years that lists local providers, their specialties, and payment methods, except with a broader purpose.

There are also specific goals to increase the number of mental health care providers and healthcare workers, including through contracts with Germanna Community College. Bell said the team attempted to examine various barriers in place, from lack of transportation to lack of internet access for those wishing to use telehealth services.

“We tried to get as many different points of view as possible,” she said, adding that it doesn’t matter what services people are eligible for if they can’t make it to appointments or there are no providers available. “We’re just going to hit a wall.”

Entrance on the Community Health Improvement Plan can be sent to Devyn Bell at [email protected]

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