This year, the Wisconsin Partnership Program will include six different public health initiatives in this year’s annual Community Impact Grant, the program announced in a press release. The initiatives, which target a variety of public health inequities, will each receive $1 million in funding over the course of five years.
Among those recipients was a joint initiative focusing on Black men’s mental health by the Rebalanced Life Wellness Association and the Urban League of Greater Madison.
RLWA founder Aaron Perry said the organization was born out of his own desire to inspire and advocate for those with diabetes after his own success combating the disease. In 2005, just 362 days after Perry’s doctor informed him his diabetes was out of control, he turned his health around and completed the Iron Man triathlon, becoming the first insulin dependent diabetic black man in the competition’s history to do so.
But, upon looking at public health data, Perry said he decided to change the scope of the organization.
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“That’s how the Rebalanced Life Wellness Association was initially born, but then we started looking at the data for Wisconsin and just Black men in this state, and I realized I need to focus on the state instead of trying to be this national spokesperson, this national advocate for diabetes,” Perry said. “I need to focus on the Black men here in Dane County.”
Perry said his group began looking at a number of entry points to engage the Black community and kept coming back to Black-owned barber shops, which historically provided Black men with social safe havens for a litany of conversations.
Perry said he noticed a trend of Black men struggling to schedule medical appointments while at the same time consistently making their barbershop appointments.
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“Why don’t we look at bringing health care to a place where we know these men will be there, they will keep their appointments, Perry said. “When someone shows up to get their haircut, let’s try to coincide that haircut with some of these preventable health screenings.”
Perry said RLWA approached Madison’s largest Black-owned barbershop, JP Hair Design, asking to place a men’s health center right inside of it. Soon, the service saw 40 men a week for blood pressure, diabetes and oral health screenings.
Initially, finding funding proved difficult. Perry said the organization unsuccessfully applied for grants for 7 years, even for the most basic supplies. That all changed with a $90,000 grant from SSM Health. After the organization’s unique model gained traction, they went on to score more grants, including a $300,000 grant from the WPP.
According to the WPP press release, the recent $1 million grant will be allocated toward normalizing and eliminating the stigma surrounding mental health issues in the Black community and improving access to mental health supports.
In response to isolation brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, RLWA recently started a weekly 90-minute virtual support group catering to Black men, Perry said.
Alvin Thomas, a clinical psychologist and Assistant Professor of Human Development and family studies at UW, said the sessions rack up over 1000 views with around 100 participants attending live.
Thomas said the grant allows the organization to bring UW’s academic expertise which is often needed by local organizations.
“It fits perfectly with the Wisconsin Idea that whatever we’re doing in this academic space has to eventually translate to the community that we’re in— Madison first, but to wider Wisconsin and the wider world,” Thomas said.
Mental health was also the focus of the grant given to the Southwestern Wisconsin Community Action Program for reducing suicide risk among farmers through a range of interventions.
Chris Frakes, who is directing the SWCAP initiative, said higher rates of farmer suicide are a national and global phenomenon.
CDC data lists the Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing, and Hunting industry as having the fourth-highest risk of suicide for men, with a rate of 36.1 per 100,000 people per year. The national rate for men in all industries is 27.4 per 100,000.
Frakes said that while highly volatile farm market and higher levels of financial insecurity are two contributing factors, another factor is the perception within the farming community that their role is not valued in society, partially due to the disconnect between consumers and farmers.
In addition, these factors are exacerbated by the declining number of farms, which makes it difficult to maintain a strong community, Frakes said.
Frakes said the grant funding would go towards educational programs on financial resilience and stability as well as broader community building to teach farmers to recognize when their peers may be experiencing thoughts of suicide. Frakes added that a third aim of the grant is educating healthcare and mental healthcare providers in rural communities about farm culture and reasons farmers hesitate to reach out for assistance.
“It is always important to recognize right when we’re out of our depth that we need to be referring somebody into professional mental health services— there’s absolutely a place for that, but I think a whole lot can be done to help provide support to folks who are feeling depressed or anxious at a community level,” Frakes said.
The recent grant is the third and largest one that the SWCAP has received from WPP, Wally Orzechowski, head of the SWCAP’s parent organization said.
Another one of the WPP grant awards went towards a group seeking to remove legal barriers towards wellbeing. Known as Legal Interventions for Transforming Wisconsin, the initiative seeks to assist individuals with civic legal issues including child support, debt, criminal records, evictions and driver’s license suspensions.
Marsha Mansfield, a UW Emeritus Law Professor and director of the UW’s Economic Justice Institute under which LIFT falls said that the grant would help expand the group’s operations.
Currently, the group is designing an app that people can use to identify their own legal barriers and fill out the necessary forms to fix their problem. Another goal is to educate traditional community helpers like librarians and social workers on guiding individuals towards legal resources.
“[Legal barriers] are barriers to people getting jobs, barriers to people getting housing, and they keep you down,” Mansfield said. “When people are kept down, that affects them both physically and mentally… Oftentimes, they don’t understand that the problem they have actually does have a legal solution.”
The Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness, the McFarland School District, and the YWCA also received grants. A full list of all six grant recipients can be found in the press release.