MYalliance promotes collaboration and coordination to help youth

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Photos by Cynthia Price

by Cynthia Price

The stats are disturbing: 15.6% of students in grades 7-12 planned how they would attempt suicide in the past twelve months, while one third of them had a major depressive episode. Almost 10% of high schoolers reported binge drinking in the past 30 days (versus 4.9% nationally), and 5.3% reported taking prescription painkillers (versus 3.5% in the U.S.)

In a standard assessment test called ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences), which measures abuse, neglect, family dysfunction and other stressful events, the national average is that 14.3% of adults will report experiencing four or more stressors, but in Muskegon County, that number is 31.4%.

In possession of this information, agencies that provide services to youth have upped their game.

MYalliance (for Muskegon Youth) System of Care supports not only the individual agencies but brings them together to promote synergies and avoid wasteful duplication, as well as share vital information and lessons learned. It is made possible by a grant from the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA); Muskegon County had an advantage in seeking the grant because it has long recognized what is to be gained from collaboration and was further along that path than some other applicants.

“We were able to get the Systems of Care expansion grant because we have a lot of strengths and a lot of things to build on,” said the project’s coordinator, Lauren Meldrum.

Last Wednesday, members of the System of Care came together for a report to the community. MYalliance is administered through HealthWest, “Muskegon’s Behavioral Wellness Connection,” which was formerly Muskegon County Community Mental Health.

One of the key strategies incorporated into the project was to include the voices of youth themselves as well as their families in the planning and even implementation of the provision of services. At last week’s report-out, testimonies were heard from a parent who got deeply involved  with the parent advisory council as well as helping provide lead-free homes (and who obviously found it very empowering herself); and a young woman who received services that turned her life around. “Nothing About Us Without Us” is the guiding slogan for that aspect of MYalliance.

Four individuals who head up agencies that have both led and benefited from the System of Care concept spoke about their parts.

Jane Johnson, the director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services in Muskegon County, is no stranger to collaborative work in the county. She was a leader in developing the Community Coordinating Council, which is now through United Way.

Among other initiatives, Johnson talked about Pathways to Potential that provides success coaches for families referred by school districts as early as possible. “We look at all the elements that may impact a family, we look at their health, we look at challenges with their economic situation,” Johnson said. “Is the family stable, and if not how can we help them  if not how can we help them to be?”

She also focused on the Integrated Service Delivery Portal which the state of Michigan is close to rolling out, a technological solution which will allow much faster access to help for youth and families. “It’s 2-1-1 in the palm of your hand,” Johnson said, referring to the current number people can call to find out specifically what help is available at any given time.

John Severson of the Muskegon Area Intermediate School District, noted, “We learned how the high ACEs scores are impacting learning... We’re trying to build the system on a very short timeframe. We created some very valuable summits with over 100 educators, parents and community members to look at solution, talking about things like mindfulness, restorative justice, helping kids with trauma. We need to be better at the ground  level.”

Muskegon County Circuit Court Administrator Sandra Vanderhyde said that she was pleasantly surprised at how “the silos had been broken down” in Muskegon County when she came here several years ago. “In other counties, people in the court don’t talk to their HealthWest, they fight, they feud.” She was only to happy to join the collaboration, and currently both the Juvenile Court and the Friend of the Court have programming that takes into account the many facets of the problems kids face before they face the juvenile justice system.

The final speaker, Julia Rupp of HealthWest, started out by saying, “When I came here six years ago, a lot of the foundation for this was already in place. We’re a bit hard on ourselves, but I guess that’s part of the Muskegon way. So we can set the bar even higher.

“We have to keep trying to reach people who haven’t been at the table - in some cases those natural community supports [such as Boys and Girls Club] but most importantly the parents and the youth. We have to be able to figure out other ways to engage them,” she added.

The MYalliance System of Care will continue its strategies, as well as develop materials that might help other counties, and states, better collaborate to solve the problems facing youth by following Muskegon’s example – a process that is mandated by SAMHSA.

They have produced a comprehensive guide to the entry points into the System of Care, available through HealthWest, and their website, www.myalliancesoc.org, is currently being updated.