May marks Mental Health Month, and serves as a reminder of the critical role that mental health plays in ensuring prepared and resilient communities. Individuals and families with positive mental health can care for themselves and others in both routine and emergency situations and rebound more quickly after a disaster. Communities can lay a foundation for resilience by addressing their residents’ psychological health and helping them to foster adaptive coping skills in the face of adversity. 
Local health departments play a key role in cultivating community resilience and ensuring that individuals within their community can access mental health services both before and after a disaster. To bolster their mental health outreach efforts, local health departments can engage the assistance of the Medical Reserve Corps (MRC), a national network of local volunteers who augment the local public health workforce. Many MRC volunteers are trained in psychological first aid; in fact, nearly half of the nation’s 990 MRC units engaged in psychological first aid/behavioral health activities in 2012.  By engaging the MRC, LHDs can extend their reach of providing early mental health interventions and working with underserved populations.
Recognizing the importance of the MRC in building community resilience through improved mental health outcomes, NACCHO offered MRC Challenge Awards in 2013 for projects related to Mental and Emotional Health and Well-being, as well as three other focus areas. Out of the 29 selected projects, nine propose improving their communities’ overall mental health and emotional well-being. Many of these projects are underway currently and serve diverse populations within their communities to address each group’s unique risk factor or their communities’ overall challenges.
Following are some of the projects that MRC units are conducting to encourage positive mental health outcomes and increase community resilience:
“The Southwest Mental Health Net” (Southwest New Mexico MRC; Silver City, NM)
The overall goal for the Southwest Mental Health Net (SMHN) program is to reduce instances of teen suicide and mental health crises by creating a network of trained youth in the fields of suicide prevention and psychological first aid in southern New Mexico. By empowering and training 100 young adults ages 18-25 with the skills to address teen suicide and psychological first aid, they will serve as the first line of intervention and prevention for mental health issues in youth. In the course of at least 12 training sessions, young adults in the program will develop positive relationships and environments for nearly 300 youth ages 11 to 17. The SMHN will not only train young adults and key community members in psychological first aid, but is also designed to meet youth where they are; provide supportive relationships with adults; offer a safe, welcoming environment for youth to collaborate and express themselves; and empower youth by involving them in governance and decision-making.
“Psychological First Aid for Families Experiencing Homelessness” (Greater Taunton MRC; Taunton, MA)
The Greater Taunton MRC is partnering with Community Counseling of Bristol County (CCBC), a nonprofit behavioral health provider, to develop a psychological first aid team to work with homeless families living in local shelters. Based on research suggesting that many families facing homelessness—especially women and their children—have experienced domestic, interpersonal, and community violence, the project aims to build emotional resiliency in individuals and families experiencing the trauma of violence and losing their home. Specialized training for MRC staff, volunteers, and CCBC staff will help them to engage with homeless families and work with them to develop a set of skills to make them feel safe and more willing to engage in the services the shelter has to offer. The psychological first aid team will later train shelter staff to become more sensitive to the difficulties of families entering their programs, leading to shorter stays, quicker connections to mental health services in the community, and less disruption for children.
“Mind Your Community!” (Campbell County MRC, Gillette, WY)
Campbell County, WY has one of the highest suicide rates in the country, along with high rates of substance abuse and related problems. The “Mind Your Community!” program addresses these mental and behavioral health challenges by implementing a mindfulness-based stress reduction program to build resiliency in individuals, families, and the broader community. Participation in mindfulness groups not only builds the individuals’ resilience in the face of trauma and distress, but it also builds a sense of unity and commonality, further adding to community resiliency. Program goals include training for 40 MRC mental health volunteers, who will then train professionals/educators in a range of organizations to reach a broad span of community members through presentations about mindfulness to groups, schools, and other community organizations. Learn more about “Mind Your Community!” in the video below.
- National Association of County and City Health Officials. (2014). 2013 Network Profile of the Medical Reserve Corps. http://www.naccho.org/publications/emergency/upload/TTC-NACCHO-MRC-Report-2013-lo-res.pdf