Rancho Cucamonga Focuses on Community’s Mental Health Needs

The City of Rancho Cucamonga won the Award for Excellence in the Health and Wellness Programs category of the 2018 Helen Putnam Award for Excellence program. For more about the award program, visit www.helenputnam.org.

Residents in the City of Rancho Cucamonga (pop. 176,671), located in western San Bernardino County, had something to say about the health and wellness of their community when the city launched a comprehensive strategic planning process in 2013. The diverse voices of Rancho Cucamonga residents identified mental health as a top community health priority — specifically, the need to enhance access to resources for anxiety, stress, depression and substance abuse. They also indicated that lack of affordable resources to both prevent and treat mental health problems keeps many people from accessing services. Other barriers include lack of transportation and health insurance as well as a shortage of bilingual and culturally competent mental health services. In addition, the stigma associated with mental health conditions prevents people from seeking treatment for themselves or for their loved ones.

The city followed up with a quality-of-life survey in 2015 and 2016. Of the residents surveyed who reported needing help for emotional problems, mental health issues or substance abuse, over half (57 percent) did not seek the help they needed. A mental health condition, such as depression or anxiety, that goes untreated can have fatal consequences. The impact on the community can be devastating.

Taking Proactive Steps to Help Prevent Future Tragedies

Rancho Cucamonga experienced such a tragedy when two teens who attended a local high school died of suicide within a month in 2018. These traumatic events left students, parents and teachers seeking emotional and psychological support and underscored the critical need for supportive programs to destigmatize mental health conditions and help prevent future tragedies related to mental health.

“Mental health is an important aspect of community health,” says Rancho Cucamonga Mayor Dennis Michael. “Creating avenues where mental health support services are easily accessible, culturally appropriate and free of stigma for all residents is critical to our community’s overall health. We’re working together to break through the stigma associated with mental health issues so everyone can — and will — access the necessary services and support.”

Rancho Cucamonga turned to its innovative city-community partnership, Healthy RC, to identify strategies for improving community access to culturally appropriate mental health resources and removing the stigma associated with mental health concerns. The partnership launched a Mental Health Subcommittee to steer the effort. With the subcommittee’s guidance, Healthy RC developed and disseminated a bilingual social media and print campaign titled Your Mind Matters, which targeted diverse populations. The campaign included postcards and flyers that encourage residents to “Start the Conversation” and visit HealthyRC.com, where they can easily access an extensive list of local mental health resources.

“A lot of organizations have been working on these challenges for a long time, but they have been working within their ‘silos’ until recently,” says James Scheu, a community partner and founder of nLab Concepts, a local nonprofit organization. “Healthy RC broke down those barriers to include hospitals, city and county agencies, nonprofits and mental health service providers in this new, collective effort — and our collaborative approach to providing mental health resources is having a bigger impact.”

As part of its outreach, Healthy RC hosted five free, family-friendly and culturally appropriate mental health community symposiums that included free dinner and child care. These meetings provided a place for residents to connect with local mental health services, have their questions answered directly by mental health experts as part of informative presentations, and create a community conversation about depression, anxiety, cyberbullying and other mental health challenges. The speakers offered resources for addressing the financial burden of accessing mental health services and overcoming the stigma associated with asking for help and explained how to find culturally appropriate service providers. Attendees learned about coping techniques for children, adults and teens that they could use at home and received worksheets and informational materials. Each symposium also incorporated mindfulness activities such as breathing exercises, tai chi and meditation led by local experts.

In evaluating the event, one mental health symposium attendee said, “After hearing the wonderful speakers, I believe we can take what we learned, start the conversation about mental health and bring it to our homes and our community so that it impacts our children and the entire family.”

A New Approach Across City Departments

To better support residents’ mental health, the City of Rancho Cucamonga took a new approach based on Healthy RC’s strategies to destigmatize the issue. The municipal library staff participated in education and certification as trainers through the national nonprofit Mental Health First Aid program. In turn, they teach these skills to front-line city staff who interact with residents on a daily basis in departments such as community services, fire and human resources. The city now offers meditation classes at the public library. Support services — including a clothes closet, food pantry, substance abuse support groups, mental health workshops and dedicated services for the city’s homeless population — are provided on a regular basis at the RC Family Resource Center.

Before the city launched its mental health initiative, few (if any) opportunities existed to engage in meaningful dialogue with policymakers about mental health needs or to develop policies and programs for improving access to mental health resources. Rancho Cucamonga created safe spaces for these vital conversations to take place, and residents responded.

“The city and community have formed authentic relationships through meaningful collaboration,” says City Manager John Gillison. “This has shifted us from a traditional approach to a model of building trust and working together to make Rancho Cucamonga the healthiest it can be.”

Contact: Erika Lewis-Huntley, management analyst III, City Manager’s Office; phone: (909) 774-2008; email: Erika.Lewis-Huntley@cityofrc.us.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of City of Rancho Cucamonga and League of California Cities.

This article appears in the April 2019 issue of Western City

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