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In the far northeast reaches of Kansas, mental health resources are few and far between. That’s more important than ever in rural counties where a sluggish farm economy and its spillover effects have taken a toll.

To reach as many people as possible with mental health resources, K-State Research and Extension’s Doniphan County team plans three “Mental Health First Aid” training sessions, including one specifically for those working with youth, said Kathy Tharman, director of the Doniphan County office. Two other classes for adults will be open to the public.

The effort got a boost from a K-State Research and Extension Culture of Health grant that will help buy textbooks and other materials for the training, Tharman said.

That grant was one of 32 provided to Kansas Extension offices to support mental and physical health initiatives across the state. In total, $170,000 in grants were awarded in 2018.

Working with Kansans across the state to improve mental and physical health is the plan behind a K-State Research and Extension effort called the Culture of Health. The goal, part of a nationwide effort, is for Extension to do for mental and physical health what Extension has done for agriculture for years.

Extension offices across the state have always offered classes and resources aimed to educate the public about how to live healthier lives. The Culture of Health initiative, however, sharpened the focus and is providing extension agents with more tools to support mental and physical health programs. To create an environment with more opportunity to practice healthy behaviors, community involvement is emphasized.

The initiative kicked off in 2018 when K-State Research and Extension brought together 250 representatives of health departments, health coalitions and other stakeholders with extension staff in seven locations around Kansas to identify existing resources and challenges. Among the most significant concerns were obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, addictions, farm stress, suicides, and access to health care and healthy foods.

“Mental health was a common thread across the state,” said Paula Peters, associate director of extension programs. “While our extension staff may not be equipped to deal directly with many of those issues, we are good at bringing people together to learn how best to address them and in guiding people to places where they can get help. Many local units, like Doniphan County, are doing just that.”

Awarding grants to local Extension offices to address some of the most pressing needs in communities was the next step. Funding was awarded for a range of projects, including activities promoting gardening in a community where healthy recreation needs were identified; improving access to healthy foods in areas considered to be ‘food deserts;’ building a walking trail in a community where outdoor recreation options were limited; and educating a community about how a co-op grocery store model can benefit citizens.

Back in Doniphan County, Tharman noted that the county health department and KANZA Mental Health, a regional not-for-profit center based in Hiawatha, work to meet the public’s needs.

“As a committee, however, we recognized that rarely are there training opportunities for this subject that are open to public, concerned citizens,” she said.

“There has been a lot of talk on farming stress lately,” Tharman added. “However, this audience is a fairly closed group – not overly receptive to public health trainings. Our goal is to be proactive in this area so as to benefit all of our community citizens.”

When learning of the grant funding opportunity, Tristen Cope, a family and consumer sciences Extension agent in Marion County, worked with volunteers from her community who make up a program development committee, to identify areas where funding could make an impact.

In Marion County, more than 22% of the 12,112 residents are 65 years of age and older. Cope said some of the barriers to creating change and building a healthy community for them include chronic diseases, limited primary care physicians, lack of insurance, and lack of public transportation and long commutes.

Her committee determined that the Stay Strong, Stay Healthy Extension program would address many of those barriers to good health.

“As part of our efforts, we are encouraging our county health-care providers to refer their clients and patients to the Stay Strong, Stay Healthy program,” Cope said. “The Culture of Health grant will help to purchase the recommended materials and supplies needed to conduct the program."