In Palm Beach County, Florida residents are tackling neighborhood challenges together. Teamwork and a commitment to inclusiveness and civic participation helped the county earn an RWJF Culture of Health prize.
Six communities that comprise the Healthier Together place-based initiative are asking local people what they care most about. Their questions sometimes surface surprising answers. Many residents say they want to focus on mental health and that “feeling whole in mind, body, and spirit” is what really matters to them. But the way they think about mental health often differs from the way a clinical provider considers it. “It’s not a traditional definition, it’s their definition,” said Jeanette Gordon, whose Healthier Neighbors Project in Riviera Beach and northern West Palm Beach is all about fostering engagement, empowerment, and balance.
Organizing a multi-generational street cleanup may not at first blush seem deeply connected to mental health, but the Healthier Lake Worth Beach community saw it as a natural fit. “They wanted to create the conditions where their kids could thrive,” explained Pat McNamara, CEO of Palm Health Foundation, which funds Healthier Together. And what could be better for emotional wellbeing than that? Under the umbrella of mental health, Palm Beach County communities are activating other priorities as well, each one identified by those who live there—including gaining access to healthy foods, confronting the root causes of trauma and violence, and creating opportunities for youth.
Increasingly, residents recognize themselves as part of a countywide movement to celebrate behavioral wellness. Whether they are participating in guided peer group conversations, expressing their emotions in murals, taking to heart the reassurance that “it is okay to shed tears,” or releasing pent-up anxiety through dance, they are responding to the message that their feelings are normal and deserve to be honored. “I see you,” belted out Angela Williams as she led an exercise class in a Healthier Delray Beach neighborhood park. It was a shoutout to an enthusiastic group moving vigorously to a beat, but it was also a broader statement about the importance of becoming visible.
In 2017, the BeWellPBC initiative was launched to amplify voices in Palm Beach County that have too often been left out of planning conversations about behavioral health services. The initiative brings together “lived experts” with “learned experts” to foster a community-driven dynamic that lifts up collaborative approaches to mental health. BeWellPBC’s philosophy is built on “be” statements: be hopeful, understood, supported, connected, informed, open, compassionate, and transformative—and be you. Within that authentic framework, mindsets can be changed and systems overhauled.
Pat McNamara articulated a theme that runs through all of this work—solutions to mental health challenges are best forged in a climate of cooperation by those who are most affected by them. “When we learn how to live better with each other and care for each other, we’re healthier,” he said.