By Bart Magee, Ph.D.
Over the last few years, I’ve heard different versions of this plea from the many people I’ve spoken with about our mission at Access Institute. It goes something like: “I really support what you are doing at Access Institute. Mental health affects all of us. The needs are so great and just keep growing. I donate to you, but I’d like to do more. What else can I do to help? How can I volunteer?” I was hearing this a lot before the pandemic, but today I hear it with increased urgency. Everyone is aware that depression, anxiety, problems with substance use, homelessness, and social discord are all on the rise. At the same time, the pandemic has caused people to feel more isolated from one another, making it more difficult to feel connected and capable of social change. In the mental health field, we are facing a huge provider shortage as the needs in our community grow vastly greater than what mental health providers can handle. All of this leaves people feeling helpless and hopeless, as if the problems we face can’t be solved. They can. Solutions emerge through collective action.
“Citizenship”, defined as a set of positive behaviors linked to one’s membership in a group or society, seems adrift. Who are we as citizens of San Francisco or the Bay Area? Are we members of a community that cares for one another? Are we individuals who seek connections in ways that foster our collective well-being? Are we dedicated to finding new ways to effect positive social change?
In response to these questions and pleas, Access Institute has begun a new initiative that will harness that hunger for connection and more meaningful citizenship and to build fundamental social and emotional capacities needed to foster collective action.
We are calling it the Resilient and Responsive Citizens Program. The goal will be to train an army of citizen volunteers who are equipped to respond to the mental health and social needs among families, friends, neighborhoods and communities. The core of the program is a five-part, ten-hour, interactive workshop that builds core emotional intelligence (EQ) skills, enabling participants to increase their self-awareness, emotional regulation, social-awareness and relationship skills. Participants will also learn key concepts related to mental health responsiveness. They will learn to identify the factors that lead to mental health crises, practice providing effective support, and learn how to access resources. Applying EQ and mental health awareness in daily life will facilitate the process of becoming resilient and responsive citizens.
The teaching method will employ a cohort-based approach. This is a bottom-up method. Teachers serve as mentors and facilitators of the learning process. Learning happens peer to peer and in the group. Key elements include:
And that’s just the start. These workshops can be adapted to the needs of different community groups, workplaces, neighborhood organizations and schools. Graduates of the program can continue on to become peer support volunteers with Access Institute, serving as mentors in one of our partner elementary schools. Volunteers can provide support through our elder program to isolated seniors in their homes or at a senior center. After school programs, shelters, and any organization providing social services could become partners for a growing volunteer program.
It’s time for Access Institute and those hungry for change to unite. Join us today and help us create a world where we are all connected and work together to heal our community.