Pierce and St. Croix counties will be tackling two major local health issues for the next three years as a part of the Healthier Together movement, a coalition dedicated to improving community health.
Hospitals, United Way and public health departments will come together alongside community stakeholders and liaisons to focus on substance and alcohol use disorder as well as mental health and its connection to obesity.
The new plan will kick off Jan. 1, 2020.
“What value can we (public health) provide to our communities that no one else can provide? The answer is, ‘building coalitions around issues that are important to the community’,” Pierce County public health director AZ Snyder said.
Hospitals are mandated by IRS requirements to collaborate with community coalitions in three-year periods and Healthier Together fills the need to come together, engaging multiple institutions including area hospitals for the community health plans.
From 2017-2019, Healthier Together prioritized health issues such as alcohol abuse, mental health and overweight/obesity.
“When we asked stakeholders what areas they wanted to focus on, what is both impactful and feasible, we decided that we were going to focus on the same areas (from last three years) except expand alcohol use to substance use disorder. There are a lot of substances that are really impacting our area, methamphetamine, opioids, vaping in our schools. We said alcohol is important, but we need to expand our reach a little bit,” Snyder said.
Both county public health directors agree the partnership between counties is valuable and effective.
“They are different counties, they have different resources, cultures and geographies. We tailor the strategies based on the needs of the counties,” Snyder added.
“When you get more people, you get different skill sets … I think complementing each other is helpful,” St. Croix County public health director Kelli Engen said.
There will be two action teams, one for mental health and another to tackle substance abuse disorder.
Since mental health is still a priority, the mental health action team will continue its work in 2020. The team’s membership will remain the same, but plan to add new initiatives. One initiative is to work on mental health screenings in the county’s schools. A lot of the schools already have universal mental health screenings, according to Snyder.
“We want to look at ways and sources of funding, so we can give every child, who wants, whose parents want a mental health screening while they are in school,” Snyder said.
The group plans to continue with its Make It OK program, mental health first aid and another program that brings speakers into schools to talk about mental health issues.
Healthier Together started a youth mental health collaboration between service providers in schools. Collaborators come together to host guest speakers to talk on various mental health related issues and network with each other.
“This is an opportunity for them to learn from each other,” Snyder said.
The substance use disorder action team will tackle issues such as medication storage and disposal. Healthier Together will pilot the program in Pierce County and if it goes well, the program will be added to St. Croix County.
Another initiative is to get Narcan into rural Wisconsin communities and provide people with training on how to administer it. Narcan is a nasal spray used in emergency situations to treat a suspected opioid overdose.
“I think our very first step is, surveying those providers and those emergency responders and saying, 'Do you have Narcan? If not, would you like some?',” Synder said.
Healthier Together takes steps to measure their success throughout the years by looking at population-based measures and process measures.
Population-based measures, like the Youth Risk Behavior survey, provide numbers to see a quantitative impact while process measures record participation among institutions like school districts and numbers of trainees.
“Some of these population-based impacts take years and years to happen. We also have an issue with delayed data. Data gets collected one year and doesn’t get analyzed and recorded until next year, so we try to use process measures too,” Snyder said.
School districts, private service providers, hospitals and even community members have been and will continue to be involved in the action plan.
“I was amazed by the amount of ownership that our community partners took for this plan,” Synder said.
Engen looks forward to working on the issues and seeing change. Complex issues like mental health and substance use seem to be layered.
“It’s like an onion, we think we've conquered one issue and then there's another issue,” Engen said.
The organization celebrated the end of the last improvement plan Nov. 6.
Healthier Together’s overarching success according to a Nov. 20 news release from the last three years included:
Training over 350 trainers as Make It OK ambassadors, who work with community groups to increase awareness of mental health issues and decrease stigma associated with mental illness.
Providing over 54,000 meals for over 100 families through partnerships with local food pantries and farmers.
Increasing physical activity during school by promoting Active School Core 4+ and Bike to School Day.
Conducting community readiness assessments in River Falls and Hudson to understand the communities’ preparation for policy changes.
More information about Healthier Together may be found at healthiertogetherstcroix.org.