The Mental Health and Recovery Board of Union County is partnering with a Columbus organization to work toward ensuring every young person has a place where they belong.
MHRBUC is working with the Kaleidoscope Youth Center, the largest organization supporting LGBTQ young people in Ohio, to bring its services to Union County.
“It’s much needed and the time has come,” said MHRBUC Lead Family Coordinator Wren Hawkins.
She said her experience as the parent of an LGBTQ child has helped her realize the size of the population and the need for related services in the county.
“When your child lets others know they identify (as LGBTQ)… you learn how big the community really is and how quiet the community really is,” she said.
Many teenagers feel isolated and lonely, Hawkins said, but the feeling is often amplified among LGBTQ youth because they don’t feel comfortable enough to talk with their family and friends.
Even so, she said historically there hasn’t been the “level of support” needed for LGBTQ young people.
“I know they’re out there. I know they’re asking for help,” Hawkins said.
MHRBUC is stepping in to provide that help, with funding from a federal grant designed specifically to help those who may be overlooked by the mental healthcare system.
Dr. Phil Atkins, executive director of MHRBUC, said new programming for LGBTQ youth will be provided through the System of Care grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA). The grant was awarded to the agency last spring and will award about $1 million each year for four years for various programs.
Atkins said the grant required MHRBUC to create a “disparity statement” analyzing the gaps surrounding mental health services in the area – including the LGBTQ community.
Fortunately, because LGBTQ youth are “big on our radar,” Atkins said the Mental Health and Recovery Board already had a relationship with Kaleidoscope Youth Center.
KYC Executive Director Erin Upchurch said the organization currently has a drop-in center and provides programming in Columbus.
Its services range from providing case managers and housing for LGBTQ youth to hosting leadership development and teacher trainings, which it has previously hosted at Marysville High School.
Upchurch said the ultimate goal of Kaleidoscope Youth Center is to create a space where young people feel safe. She said programs are youth-led, while KYC staff provides the “space, resources, expertise and support.”
“We want them to know there is a place they belong in this world… that’s a basic human need we all have,” she said.
She said it’s especially important to support LGBTQ youth because they are at a higher risk of experiencing mental health problems, substance use, homelessness or dropping out of school.
Atkins emphasized this is “not because anything is wrong with them, but because of the distress they feel” navigating prejudice.
In Union County, Atkins said healthcare providers are especially concerned about the elevated risk for suicide among LGBTQ young people. He said the partnership with KYC is part of a larger suicide prevention strategy in the county.
Upchurch said the hope is to provide help before “the risk factors become reality.”
Through the partnership between the Mental Health and Recovery Board and Kaleidoscope Youth Center, Hawkins said support will come in the form of weekly group meetings.
She said they will alternate each week between a group meeting for LGBTQ youth and one designed for parents or community members.
Upchurch said the programming will be built around needs and desires expressed by the young people who participate. A group meeting could simply be hanging out, eating pizza and making art or a discussion group led by a mental health professional.
The groups will be hosted in a newly renovated room in the Mental Health and Recovery Board building on N. Main Street, Hawkins explained. She said she is finishing the room with new colors and furniture so it is a “comfy space where people can feel safe.”
Although the timeline for groups meeting in person is uncertain due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hawkins said the agencies plan to soon host a virtual open house, likely in June, which coincides with Pride Month.
She said she knows the community is invested in helping LGBTQ youth, as over 40 people attended an online event introducing Kaleidoscope Youth Center to the Union County community.
With community support, Hawkins described the programming as a “wonderfully growing project.” It will continue to develop and expand, she said, as the pandemic restrictions are lifted.
“Right now, we’re standing at the starting line waiting for people to say, ‘Go!’” she said.
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