State funds $227,000 to connect low-income families with comprehensive support services

COURTESY PHOTO: DREAMSTIME - Access to mental health care remains a significant problem in Oregon, studies show.A new program connecting low-income families with a variety of mental and behavioral health resources is launching in Clackamas County through funding from the Oregon Department of Human Services.

The "Healthy Connections Oregon" program, led by Health Share of Oregon, will help participants in the state-funded Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program navigate accessing additional long-term support through counseling, addiction recovery, parent mentoring and more.

The cash-benefit program TANF offers financial assistance to families with children who struggle to afford basic necessities including food, clothing and housing.

Following Clackamas County commissioners' approval on June 2, over $227,000 in the Oregon Health Authority funds are going to Healthy Connections in Clackamas County through June 30, 2023.

Jered Hinshaw, a county mental health navigator, assists DHS-referred families in finding and applying for local services that help them overcome mental health challenges including addiction and trauma-based disorders such as depression, PTSD, suicide ideation and more.

"I narrow it down to all the providers in the area who accept the Oregon Health Plan, we tap into them and try to get people as close to their home as possible," Hinshaw said.

On top of connecting parents and their children with professional counseling and peer support programs, Hinshaw said he takes a holistic approach to the concept of therapy and support, valuing creativity and play as well as clinical aid.

"It's mind, body, spirit healing, and so we try to connect on all those different levels for folks and I like to discuss and explore healthy therapeutic outlets," he said.

A former employment specialist for Central City Concern, a nonprofit addressing systemic factors driving chronic homelessness, Hinshaw himself is more than five years sober following years of struggling with drug abuse and alcoholism.

"I get to bring that lived experience to the table as well, and it adds another layer of my ability to connect with my clients and best serve them," Hinshaw said, adding that he hopes more roles like his are worked by people who are in recovery themselves or can relate to what their clients are going through.

With the new funding, Hinshaw said an additional mental health navigator will be joining the team to help meet demand that has increased sharply during the COVID-19 pandemic as limited support services continue to fill up open spots.

In 2020, Oregon ranked 47th in the country for mental health based on a system that encompasses both prevalence of mental illness and availability of care. In 2021, Oregon was bumped up to 41st in the country.

Michele Veenker, executive director at National Alliance on Mental Illness Clackamas County, said research has shown that the number-one cause for stress and anxiety was access — or lack thereof — to mental health care.

She added that some of the many factors behind the decline in providers include less people going into the mental health field, traditionally lower pay compared to other forms of health care and increased burnout rates during the pandemic.

Hinshaw said that non-medical professionals can support the issue by helping remove the ongoing social stigma associated with mental health issues, which he said begins with showing kindness and compassion to others.

"We need to be kind to people, we don't know their story," Hinshaw said. "When people say, 'Oh, why don't you just go get a job? or, 'Why don't they just get sober?' We don't know exactly what trauma took place."

He added that mental health and substance abuse issues affect all communities and are often downplayed when the signs aren't immediately visible. "It's the business executive who's struggling, it's the single mom — everybody's experienced some form of trauma in their life at some point."

Additional partners supporting the program include Morrison Child and Family Services, Providence Help Me Grow, Northwest Family Services, and Clackamas County's Children, Family & Community Connections division.

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