New United Way focus to address long-term problem

While the agency will continue its traditional support, it will also provide grants to tackle issues such as mental illness.

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WALLA WALLA — In a break from business as usual, changing the bleak picture of mental illness here is front and center for Walla Walla County United Way’s 2012-2013 campaign season, its leader says.

To do so, the agency is prepared to use 30 percent of yet-to-be donated and undesignated dollars, which could mean as much as $80,000 if Walla Walla gives as generously as it has in the past, officials said.

Last year, the United Way annual campaign brought in $446,400 and the agency dispersed $345,123 after campaign costs.

The United Way has traditionally been a channeler, so to speak. People wishing to support national and community causes can funnel donations through the agency and its 1,200-plus community offices.

In particular, the organization has shone in building partnerships with companies to foster payroll giving and add combined weight to support for community needs.

That part of the Valley’s United Way isn’t going anywhere, said Executive Director Liz McDevitt. A fresher national approach, however, is leading the organization to create local change more directly. Here that means a focus on better mental health care through “community impact grants.”

The new style of grant-making allows United Way to support its established three-pronged dedication to education, income and health. But it also will shine light on a special cause over at least a three-year period, McDevitt said.

Prevention and support for mental health issues are critical investments, she pointed out, citing a recent Healthy Youth Survey in Washington state. Self-reported results found 26 percent of high school seniors in Walla Walla County said they had episodes of depression, with 13 percent indicating suicidal thoughts and 56 percent expressing a reluctance to ask for help.

This area has long suffered a paucity of providers in the field, More than half of those with a mental health diagnosis get care from their primary care doctors, who are not specifically trained in behavioral health. “So ready or not, they have to be ready to prescribe,” McDevitt noted.

The lack of providers and programs costs everyone money when people end up in an emergency room seeking mental health management. It’s a cycle crying for urgent attention, she said, citing her board members. “So many arrows were pointing to this as the right time.”

Although the national agency has been experimenting with the direct-impact concept for a number of years, the Walla Walla County United Way board decided to wait out the worst of the recession and tailor the idea to a good local fit.

Money raised each year in this area has historically helped programs for children, end-of-life care, nutrition and low-income families. Such assistance will continue, but some agencies will see modification in future United Way support, McDevitt said.

Decisions how that will look came from analysis of what population each organization serves and other possible sources of funding for an agency.

“You only have so much money and the need is greater than what you can give.” Helpline, for example, serves the neediest while the YMCA in Walla Walla enjoys generous support from elsewhere, she said.

And no one can argue the need to improve the care for those living with mental illness. It was an obvious choice for her agency’s first community impact grant cycle, McDevitt explained. “The end goal is improving lives in Walla Walla County.”

With a heft of those direct dollars, United Way hopes to engage new and diverse players in the conversation, such as local hospitals and schools.

Ultimately, more community agencies speaking the same language means consensus about mental illness, she said. “One goal is to reduce stigma. Health professionals know it’s brain chemistry. When people understand that, they can talk about it. That’s not about the dollars we raise, that is about education.”

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