Addressing social determinants of mental health: Village HeartBEAT’s plan for the future

COVID-19, housing and financial-related barriers are among the leading health concerns for Black residents in Mecklenburg County, according to Joelle Dugue, executive director of Village HeartBEAT.

Village HeartBEAT is a faith-based nonprofit focused on addressing health disparities within the “crescent” zip codes of Mecklenburg County, including 28216, 28269, 28215, and 28213. 

Back in March, QCity Metro spoke with Dugue about Village HeartBEAT’s goals and programs.  One of those programs, Bridge to Better Mental Health, connects those in need to free therapy services and began in March 2022. 

QCity Metro recently spoke with Dugue again for an update on the Bridge to Better Mental Health program and the leading health concerns in Charlotte’s Black communities.

Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity. 

COVID-19 exacerbated several health issues within the Black community. Have any of those issues improved since the pandemic officially ended? 

COVID-19 highlighted the mental health issues that we had in the [Black] community, and we’re still dealing with them now. A lot of people are still dealing with isolation [and] loss. So, we’re still in that space as far as the mental health part. 

Since starting the Bridge to Better Mental Health program, what have you learned about the needs of the Black community? 

One of the needs that we’re seeing is the social determinants of mental health. We must address those. We want to have a full circle approach, a holistic approach.

What are some of those social determinants?

The biggest one that we’ve seen is mental health access, [being] unable to afford mental health[care]. [We’re] also seeing housing issues and financial barriers…and food insecurity.

What type of programs do you see Village HeartBEAT having in the next five years? 

I definitely see [Village HeartBEAT] being a stronger bridge in the community. That’s our mission: to address health disparities. We don’t want another COVID. But if things like COVID keep occurring in our community, we want to be the safe space, that bridge for our communities to actually get those resources that they need. 

In the next five years, some of the programs that we have, we would really like to serve as a toolkit for others. Whichever program we have used, we have turned them into a toolkit so we can share them with other counties. So they can do the same thing for their communities. 

How has the Bridge to Better Mental Health program changed or expanded since starting last March? 

We have seen great progress. We were able to serve over 100 individuals and connected close to 95 folks to mental health services. As we go into year two, we are seeing some more of the social determinants of mental health, [and] we’re really addressing those needs and connecting folks to those resources.

Back in March, you mentioned plans to expand Village HeartBEAT’s mental health hubs through the Bridge to Better Mental Health program. How has that gone? 

After assessing [the Bridge to Better Mental Health program] after one year, we are going to keep the hubs that we have. But, one way we are looking to expand it would be to partner with other nonprofits, churches and faith-based organizations.

Suicide is the 13th leading cause of death in North Carolina. Among Black people aged 10- 24, suicide was the third leading cause of death. How does Village HeartBEAT work to address this?

The beauty of Village HeartBEAT is that we are a faith-based organization in Black and brown communities. [Black and brown communities] see faith-based organizations as this trusted source.

Finally, having pastors saying, ‘Hey, you should address mental health; you can have Jesus, but you can also have mental health,’ has been [helpful] for the community. 

People are starting to listen and understand what mental health is. Because mental health is part of your physical health, we can’t just have the two of them separated. So [in N.C.], we’re making a push for it. This is why a Bridge to Better Mental Health exists. We are addressing those needs. We hope that we can move the needle in mental health when it comes to Black and brown communities.

Are there any new programs you’re currently working on?

Currently, Bridge to Better Mental Health only serves [people] 18 and over. [This new program] focuses on providing mental health for families.[It] connects folks to Black and brown providers. We are focusing on the family because we know if the son is not doing well, the mom is not doing well.

Also, in that program, we are creating a collaborative network for providers as well as faith-based leaders in our community. [They will be able] to come together, learn from one another and see how they can help improve mental health and reduce the stigma of mental health in Black and brown communities. 

We just started this [unnamed] program in May. We’re still in the implementation phase of the program. We [hired] our program manager, and we have two community health workers.

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