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Editor’s note: The Columbus Telegram is running a three-week initiative highlighting different pillars of the Columbus Area United Way, a nonprofit organization committed to focusing resources to measurably improve the education, health and financial stability of the community. This week’s focus is on financial stability. See the previously published story on education at columbustelegram.com.

At a recent meeting, members of the Columbus Area United Way’s Board of Directors discussed various developments in Columbus that they have a vested interest in. Among those was mental health, which led to the discussion of a survey on suicidal thoughts in youth in Columbus and the surrounding area.

What they discovered was shocking.

“When the committee met, after much discussion, there was a very disturbing statistic that we were made aware of from local youth,” said Jo Suess, development director at the Columbus Area United Way. “(That was) the number of youth that had thought about attempting suicide.

“We decided to specifically focus on that and encourage our partners to create that awareness or education on (first,) how to impact the person who’s thinking about attempting suicide, but (also) the education of mental health professionals or any health professionals on what to do if that’s brought to your attention.”

Out of that meeting, the board decided to focus its efforts on creating a healthier Columbus, both mentally and physically. The strategy that its members decided on was to help the community understand the many things that can affect health, from having a solid diet at an early age, to how domestic violence can foster unhealthy relationships.

Through the many community partners that work with the Columbus Area United Way, programs are designed to impact both the body and the soul.

“The focus that we chose for education on health is healthier lifestyle choices,” Suess said. “That can include physical and mental health. It would be physical activities or even healthy food or nutrition.”

The United Way works with many of its partners on programs like the Youth for Christ’s Healthy Hearts and Souls group, which helps children in the area learn how to cook healthy meals. Then there's the Center for Survivors’ Revolution group, which teaches area youth how to promote healthy dating relationships. All of this provides assistance not just for people who need to shave off a few extra pounds, but also for those who need to get out of a bad situation.

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“When it comes to making healthier choices when you think about that, prevention is going to be key,” said Jamie Heine, a pharmacist at Tooley Drug and a member of the Board of Directors. “The goal for all of this is prevention and knowledge and learning how our choices can affect our lifestyles. It’s one of those things (where when) you know better, you do better.”

One major point of emphasis for the United Way this time around is how social media can affect mental health. With the rise of technology making it more difficult for people to have a face-to-face conversations, social media can exacerbate this by isolating them from society and making their lives dependent on these platforms.

“We’re losing that face-to-face interaction, so that’s a way social isolation occurs,” Heine said. “With social media, of course, as we all become more entrapped by devices, we’re communicating less face-to-face.”

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If there is one thing that the United Way is working to improve on in regard to providing mental health services, it’s making sure that people who need help find it immediately. The United Way refers people with mental health issues to counselors who, hopefully, have some answers for their problems and put them on the path to better health. Unfortunately, there are times where the wait for counseling is too long for some.

“In my mind, one of the things we need to work on is where do you go to for that immediate help when you can’t get into a counselor for a week or so,” Suess said. “I think that’s one thing that needs to be identified. With all of these goals, we’ve had all of these discussions and the first step is educating the community on what the United Way goals are. Now, the next step is to get back into the meeting room and bring the right people to the table to let us dig into this a little deeper.”

The goals that the United Way wants to emphasize are part of a five-year plan within the community. 2020 marks the first year that the organization will emphasize mental health and the hope is in 2025, that things can look rosier not just for children and youth in Columbus, but everyone else, as well.

“We’ll look at the survey again and we hope that youth have developed better ways to cope with mental health,” Heine said. “(We want to see) a better plan for that and know that they can talk to friends, reach out to family members, teachers, counselors at school, doctors (and) feel like they have an outlet for that when they know that those feelings are hitting.”

The United Way campaign is underway. Those who want to donate, whether they're an individual seeking to donate $10 or a local business looking to provide $10,000, can do so by visiting the nonprofit's website, www.columbusareaunitedway.com or by calling its office at 402-564-5661.

Zach Roth is a reporter for The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at zachary.roth@lee.net.

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Zach Roth is a reporter for The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at zachary.roth@lee.net.

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