LISTEN: A city-funded mental health care initiative in Macon could be a model for other communities in Georgia. GPB’s Ellen Eldridge has the details.

A group of five children talking

Certified counselors in the Macon Mental Health Matters program are trauma-informed and representative of the diverse communities they serve.

Credit: Macon Mental Health Matters via Facebook

Since the spring of 2021, the city of Macon started a private/public partnership, Macon Mental Health Matters.

The initiative has been boosting access to wellness programs, counseling, and treatment — at no cost to the client, Project Director Andrea Cooke said.

Public activities including yoga every second Saturday of the month, local hikes, and even a meetup at cigar bar bring mental health counseling to people where they are.

"We do a drum circle," Cooke said, providing an example of one activity. "Drumming helps to regulate the heart rate. It helps people who have anxiety, and helps people who have ADHD refocus. It is a calming technique."

What happens, she said, is that people don't know that they're getting that benefit from participating in an hourlong drum circle.

Through offering these nontraditional mental health services people can feel more comfortable asking questions about the nature of therapy.

"There's this idea of welcoming people into a space, treating them well, not focusing on the medical model approach," Cooke said. "So instead of it being called a therapy session, it's called a sojourn. The therapist is walking along this journey with the person who's receiving services so that people feel connected with their counselor, but also they build connection with the community as a result of participating in Teranga."

Teranga is a Wolof word meaning hospitality.

Despite the mental health work going on in Macon-Bibb in 2019, Cooke was surprised and alarmed to learn Georgia ranked 51st in the nation for access to mental health services.

Cooke is a marriage and family therapist who finished her master's degree at Mercer University in Macon, and had an opportunity to work with the mayor's transition team.

"We discussed what kinds of things we could do to address some of the concerns that have become exacerbated as a result of the pandemic," she said. "I mean, crime rates were up. People were more isolated, anxiety was increasing, depression rates were increasing. So, we were discussing how we could address the issue and the need. And so, we made a strategic plan about how we would address those issues."

Cooke said the state legislature’s Mental Health Parity Act helped guide local leaders, but House Bill 1013 didn’t really create a community-based mental health program for people, especially people of color who are disproportionately affected by lack of access to care.

The certified counselors in the Macon Mental Health Matters program are trauma-informed and representative of the diverse communities they serve, she said.

"This project is something that is able to be replicated in other communities and not for a whole lot of money," she said. "There's a way to take care of people without having to worry about how it's going to be paid for or the expense. But it really is a value add to communities to be able to offer mental health services at no cost to the person needing the service."

The most recent data from 2022 shows Georgia is now 49th in access to mental health care.