Published on December 11, 2020

Lee Ice, Margaret Morris, Patrick Schmitz

Clockwise from bottom left: Margaret Morris, CEO - Lawrence Arts Center; Lee Ice, assistant director - Lawrence Parks and Recreation; and Patrick Schmitz, CEO - Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center. Photo credit: Jeff Burkhead

Well-being group: A collaborative effort to provide resources to support community during pandemic

Jeff Burkhead, Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center

Worried about some of her friends, a Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center board member recently messaged the Center’s CEO Patrick Schmitz and other staff members.

“I have friends who are just down and need some positivity,” the board member said. “I have been asked if Bert Nash has any online resources/exercises/links that would help people who are experiencing low energy or light depression during these seasonal days of COVID. Thanks for any help.”

Help is available.

Not only on the Bert Nash Center’s website, but on a new community resource website hosted by Lawrence Douglas County Public Health: ldchealth.org/hope. The new resource is part of Douglas County’s Unified Command Community Well-being Branch.

The Unified Command structure was developed to lead a comprehensive COVID-19 pandemic response, combining local government, health, education and business leaders. The Unified Command’s goals are to minimize the spread and impact of COVID-19 while building resilience and recovery strategies for the community through unified, equitable and coordinated action.

In November, Unified Command formed the Community Well-being Branch. That group’s purpose is, in collaboration with local community partners, to “identify, empower and develop equitable strategies and practical implementation to support the social emotional health of the essential workforce, individual community members and identified high-risk vulnerable populations.”

“It was an offshoot of Unified Command because of the need to address people’s mental health and wellbeing during the pandemic,” said Bert Nash Center CEO Schmitz. “Because of the pandemic, we face a mental health crisis unlike any we have seen before, where anxiety and depression are affecting our community at higher rates, while the resources of those needing help have diminished or disappeared entirely. So, they decided to form this Community Well-being group. We will help develop messages and information to send out to the community.”

Schmitz is one of three co-leaders of the Well-being Branch, along with Margaret Morris, CEO of the Lawrence Arts Center, and Lee Ice, assistant director of Lawrence Parks and Recreation.

“It’s not just the importance of physical activity, it’s the mental well-being of people,” said Parks and Recreation Assistant Director Ice. “We’ve been fortunate this fall that the weather has been pretty good. People have been able to get on the trails and walk and bike and do those things. People have been very appreciative of whatever we could offer.”

“The Unified Command recognized we need to start thinking about people’s mental health,” Lawrence Arts Center CEO Morris said. “The way we’re staying healthy at the Arts Center, the way I’m staying healthy, is to let go of the things we can’t do right now and what we have lost, and instead look ahead to see what do we have right now and what we can build from this. That is what will make us stronger as people and as businesses and organizations, but it’s also a huge opportunity to bring the community together in a time of crisis.”

The Community Well-being group’s objectives include:

  • Identify needs and resources to support the essential workforce responding to COVID-19.
  • Identify resources and outreach opportunities to support both those with pre-COVID-19 mental health needs as well as those who are currently experiencing mental health needs due to COVID-19 including isolation, depression, stress, anxiety, substance abuse, domestic violence, stigma, etc.
  • Create a communications strategy to aid the community in building / re-building hope.
  • Identify communications strategies to ensure all populations, including those most vulnerable, are aware of available programs for testing, vaccination, health and mental health services, mental wellness coping strategies and are able to access those resources.
  • Identify opportunities for collaboration with Housing and Human Services and Education Branches to support community well-being.
  • And identify strategies, opportunities and recommendations that both encourage digital well-being as well as activities which combat personal isolation and provide personal connections and recreation in a safe manner.

Various community agencies have provided mental and physical wellbeing resources to share on the Community Well-being Branch’s website.

One of those resources is myStrength, which provides digital self-care resources at no cost for Douglas County residents.

“COVID-19 has presented everyone with a unique set of circumstances that challenge our mental health, resilience, and well-being,” said Bob Tryanski, director of behavioral health projects for Douglas County and a member of the Community Well-being group. “That’s why we are encouraging every member of our community to subscribe to myStrength. MyStrength offers free, self-directed resources, tools, and evidence-based strategies for coping during the pandemic and thriving as we move forward. It doesn’t matter if you’re looking for tools to help you cope with anxiety, strategies for parents to navigate COVID-related challenges with your kids, or ideas for dealing with loneliness and managing loss and grief, myStrength has easy-to-access solutions for everyone.”

Another resource is a class called Mental Health First Aid, which is now available to take virtually.

“Mental Health First Aid is a great class for people from all sorts of backgrounds to learn how they might support someone who is struggling,” said Julia Gaughan, Bert Nash Center prevention and education manager and a member of the Community Well-being group. “You learn about the signs and symptoms of mental health and substance use challenges as well as a framework for responding in a way that’s nonjudgmental and encourages professional help and self-care.

A link to a full listing of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) courses is available on the Well-being Branch website: ldchealth.org/hope. There is a registration fee for MHFA and scholarships are available. For information, contact mhfa@bertnash.org.

The pandemic has been challenging not only for individuals and families, but businesses and organizations as well.

“It’s been difficult on our staff,” said Parks and Recreation Assistant Director Ice. “Our parks people do a tremendous job to build up community, you look at the Christmas lights downtown, you look at the flowers, the parks, we haven’t missed a beat. But with programming, it’s totally different. There’s so much planning involved, but with this pandemic, we don’t even know what we’ll be doing tomorrow.

“When we closed down on March 13, it took us another six to eight months before we opened our doors again for anything,” Ice said. “We got through the summer activities because they were outdoors. People could still walk and bike and go on the trails, but the programming part was still difficult. Now that we’re getting into the winter season, we’re trying to finish up activities through December. Then we’re going to revisit everything the first of January to see what we can offer. If anybody has a crystal ball on where we will be with all this come Jan. 15, then we could plan.”

The pandemic has also been rough on the business community.

“From the business community perspective, there have been so many ups and downs this year. It’s been an emotional roller-coaster for a lot of business owners. So many businesses have been diligently following the health orders, whether it’s to their detriment or not, because they want to keep our community safe. But that has taken its toll on a lot of business owners,” said Lindsey Slater, director of communications for The Lawrence Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Community Well-being Branch. “That mental health aspect for our entire community, including the business community, is such a vital piece to see us through until we can see the other side. Any support we can give to our business owners and their employees is very important, now more than ever. It’s been hard on a lot of businesses, but they have done an amazing job of adapting and switching gears and doing everything they can to keep everyone safe.”

Symbols are important, Arts Center CEO Morris said, especially during a pandemic and during this holiday season when families and friends can’t be together. One of those symbols is the hashtag #DGKS♥ which will be used on the group’s social media posts as well as yard signs that will be made available to the public.

“We, as a community, are all in this together,” Morris said. “We’re trying to get things out visibly into the community that remind us of that. Nobody is alone; we are all experiencing grief and sadness and difficulty of some kind. The added kicker is that people can’t be with their families. When all of this is over, I won’t have seen my parents for over two years, and I’m not the only one. A lot of us are in that situation. But we can all, also, be hopeful together. That’s what this group is born out of.”


Jeff Burkhead is communications director at Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center.

Well-being group: A collaborative effort to provide resources to support community during pandemic

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