While the COVID-19 pandemic shined a spotlight on health disparities in the St. Louis area and elsewhere, it also brought to the forefront the issues of mental health and wellness among young people.
According to the Children’s Hospital Association, from April to October of 2020, mental health emergency room visits increased 24% for children ages 5-11 and 31% for those ages 12-17 compared to the same period in 2019.
“This makes access to school and community-based services and broad support for mental wellness for students, families and school personnel extremely important,” says Angela Martin Davis, BJC Behavioral Health Services vice president.
As part of its community health improvement efforts, BJC HealthCare is establishing several community wellness hubs in underserved neighborhoods disproportionately facing daily stress across the City of St. Louis and north St. Louis County. These hubs are trusted gathering places that connect community members to essential programs, services and spaces that advance health equity, improve health outcomes and enhance quality of life. Programs and services provided in the hubs are designed based on insights from community residents and community organizations.
“The BJC Community Health Improvement team is committed to advancing equitable health and educational outcomes by increasing access to comprehensive support for children, families and communities,” says Doneisha Bohannon, BJC Community Health Improvement director of partnership and collaborations.
“Our hope for these wellness hubs is to provide a space for children, youth and families to come, relax and take a deep breath, and get access to services such as health care, nutrition and physical activity. The pandemic affected the mental health of our community members and by offering these programs, our community will have access to the support they need for overall behavioral health and wellness.”
Research from the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine estimates that up to one in five children experiences a mental health challenge in any given year. “However, the burden of mental health problems is not accepted equally among children, as racial disparities among children in the St. Louis region illustrate,” says Martin Davis.
According to the Missouri Public Health Information Management System, in the City of St. Louis, African American children under the age of 15 are more than three times as likely to seek emergency room services and twice as likely to be admitted as inpatients for mental health concerns compared with white children. In St. Louis County, Black children in the same age range are twice as likely to seek emergency care and 1.8 times as likely to be inpatients for mental health.
There are also significant racial disparities in educational outcomes, Martin Davis adds.
According to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the annual dropout rate in 2020 for Black students in the city of St. Louis and north St. Louis County districts was the highest for Saint Louis Public Schools and more than twice as high compared with white students.
“The number of years a child is in school is one of the strongest and most consistent predictors of health outcomes, and healthy children are better able to attend, connect and succeed in school,” says Martin Davis. “Together, we can help children advance equitable health and educational outcomes by increasing access to comprehensive support for children and staff in early learning and K-12 settings and surrounding communities.”
“This program provides an opportunity to expand behavioral health services across the community, partnering with community-based organizations to develop these wellness hubs to ensure equitable access to behavioral health support throughout the year,” says Martin Davis. “These community wellness hubs can serve as central locations for holistic wellness, including mental, physical and spiritual health, offering vital services and meeting people in an already trusted community organization while prioritizing overall well-being.”
The community wellness hubs will be located in high-visibility areas near major transportation corridors and will be part of existing, accessible service networks. BJC is working with trusted community gathering places including, but not limited to, youth-serving organizations, recreation centers and libraries across the City of St. Louis and north St. Louis County.
During the 2022-2023 school year, three community wellness hubs will be established at the St. Louis County Library’s three North County locations (Lewis & Clark, Parkview and Natural Bridge) and will help to:
Improve access to behavioral health services and supports
Expand delivery of out-of-school-time health and wellness programming for children, youth and their caregivers
Increase access to essential services including health care, nutrition and physical activity
Increase Medicaid, SNAP and WIC enrollments for eligible neighbors
“Our community partners are helping to co-create the overall design of the wellness hubs based on programmatic knowledge and relationships with community members," Bohannon adds. “BJC is also helping establish connections to provide other social supports onsite such as access to food, enrollment assistance, and disease prevention and management.”
BJC received more than 500 responses from community residents who identified the need for self-care, healthy eating, mindfulness and yoga programs. In response to these needs, in November 2022 BJC began providing self-care nutrition, journaling as self-care, and mindful movement programs free of charge across each site during convenient times for community residents. BJC and the St. Louis County Library are also working with the Collective STL, a group of Black yoga and wellness instructors committed to improving the health and well-being of Black communities. The Collective STL will offer yoga and meditation classes with sessions curated for families and youth beginning in 2023. Future expansion of this effort will extend beyond programs to connecting individuals to behavioral health services as needed.
“These community wellness hubs demonstrate BJC’s commitment to the healthiest possible life of our community members and help make sure we support the health and well-being that extends beyond the walls of our hospitals," Bohannon adds. "Our hope is that these hubs will be a well-used resource to focus on preventing behavioral health challenges and provide preventive programming in the community.”
Specific details about the wellness hubs are still being developed and will be shared as the program continues to come together.
Initial funds to launch the community wellness hubs were provided by the Missouri Baptist Healthcare Foundation. To learn more, provide support through a philanthropic partnership or get involved in BJC HealthCare’s Community Wellness Hub program or other community health improvement programs, please contact [email protected].
Upcoming Community Wellness Hub Events
January - Yoga for Stress Relief
- Lewis & Clark - Wednesday, Jan. 18, 7 p.m.
- Parkview - Monday, Jan. 23, 6 p.m.
February - Meditation for Wellness
- Parkview - Monday, Feb. 6, 7 p.m.
- Lewis & Clark - Thursday, Feb. 16, 7 p.m.
- Natural Bridge - Wednesday, Feb. 22, 6 p.m.
March - Yoga for Stress Relief
- Natural Bridge - Thursday, March 9, 6 p.m.
- Parkview - Monday, March 20, 7 p.m.
- Lewis & Clark - Monday, March 27, 7 p.m.