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Knowledge is Power! Community outreach for COVID prevention

October 26, 2020
by Markeshia Ricks

The Connecticut Mental Health Center’s Health Equity Group is doing a simple but important thing to help the New Haven community stay physically safe during the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s providing timely public health information that is concise and accessible to both English and Spanish speakers who live in COVID-19 hotspots throughout New Haven.

Britt Lewis, LCSW, a clinical team leader at CMHC, said the “Knowledge is Power / Saber es Poder” campaign is the brainchild of members of the Health Equity Group including Lewis, fellow social workers Athena Jenkins and Erica Reshard, Director of Social Work Maria Oliva, and CMHC Foundation Director Kyle Pedersen.

The idea for the campaign came from Jenkins and Reshard, both of whom had noticed the prevalence of people gathering but not practicing social distancing near local businesses. In most instances, individuals were wearing masks improperly, or not wearing them at all.

The committee put their heads together and quickly came up with what they hoped would be an effective message delivered in a trustworthy manner that would resonate with the people who needed it most.

The campaign features posters and postcards that, so far, a handful of CMHC staffers have volunteered to hand out to anyone who will take them. The volunteers have spent hours walking through neighborhoods like Dixwell and Fair Haven paying particular attention to corner stores and bodegas.

Lewis designed the initial graphics, which were taken to the next level by CMHC’s freelance graphic designer Jeanne Criscola. The people featured in the materials are intentionally and identifiably Brown and Black because Lewis wanted them to look like the very people who would see and receive them.

The double-sided cards include a simple, straightforward message in English and Spanish: wash your hands, wear a mask, keep your distance and get tested.

Michael J. Sernyak, MD, CEO of CMHC and Yale Professor of Psychiatry, reflected that the effort reflects the center’s mission to keep “community” at the forefront of community mental health.

“While some might think that community mental health means treatment of psychiatric disorders, we think it extends to include the issues of the day,” he explained. “With this campaign, we saw an opportunity to focus on physical health and prevention, which we know is connected to mental health.”

Lewis and fellow social worker Billy Bromage, who serves as CMHC’s director of community organizing, spent a muggy afternoon walking down Dixwell Avenue, popping into stores and talking to business owners. Many of the owners graciously allowed them to hang the posters or leave postcards where patrons could grab them.

She said the majority of the business owners they encountered were receptive to displaying the material once they explained that they weren’t asking for anything. After walking three miles and accumulating quite a number of blisters that first day, Lewis said it was worth it.

“It was fun,” Lewis said. “I was sweating bullets because it was so muggy but…I went home really proud of what we had done.”

Bromage noted that in addition to providing good COVID safety information, the “Knowledge is Power” campaign helps plant a small seed about CMHC and mental health care, one that could be useful to people later.

“It was nice to be outside and interact with people,” he added. “We were doing something that felt like a meaningful contribution to the community.”

The pair has also walked parts of the Dwight neighborhood around Yale-New Haven Hospital's Saint Raphael Campus. But theirs are not the only boots on the ground. Connecticut Latino Behavioral Health System Director Michelle Silva, PsyD has joined a growing group of volunteers that includes Cheri Bragg from the Yale Program for Recovery and Community Health and social worker Eileen Hamel from CMHC’s Street Psychiatry team.

Silva said being able to greet people in Spanish as they made their way through Fair Haven seemed to create a sense of receptiveness in the community. The team’s approach, that “we’re all in this together” rather than authority figures, made a difference too. Once business owners realized that the volunteers weren’t collecting anything or trying to sell things, they were open to having the flyers in their windows.

Hammel, who does a lot of outreach in the Fair Haven neighborhood where she also now lives, said that the community is so welcoming but often underserved. Volunteering to spread the “Knowledge is Power” message allowed her a chance to meet her neighbors, including the owner of the Fair Haven Pharmacy.

“We got many thank you’s and we didn’t get any refusals,” she said. “We also met some of our clients on the street, which is always a win.”

CMHC is offering free postcards to non-profit partners, including within the Community Services Network, a collective of local organizations serving people with serious mental health challenges. To date, the team has given away nearly 5,000 cards.

Maria Oliva and Kyle Pedersen both said that the Health Equity Group realized quickly that the pandemic doesn’t just impact a person’s physical health. It also impacts their mental and behavioral health. And those are two areas where CMHC has a lot of expertise.

“It requires a behavioral change,” Pedersen said. “We’re mental health providers with a lot of experience on how to change behavior.”

Oliva said getting the prevention message out also recognizes that the pandemic is creating longer-term mental health consequences for people in the community.

“Anything we can do to strengthen our relationship with the community and let them know that CMHC is here and is a resource, we must do,” she said. “We want people to know that there are ways to meet their mental health needs.”

The volunteers continue to walk, using safe prevention practices themselves. Now, with cases rising in Connecticut and colder weather setting in, they feel a new sense of urgency.

“We’re hoping more people will want to help,” Oliva said. “New Haven is big for six people to cover on foot.”

“We hope the message gets to people who need it,” Dr. Sernyak added. “We’ll be on the lookout for new ideas for how we can continue to connect."

Submitted by Lucile Bruce on October 23, 2020