One by one people posted small colored paper squares on a large white sheet headlined by the words “mental health.”
That large poster-size paper was among 14 hung on a meeting room wall Thursday night in the downstairs level of L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library in Eau Claire, each signifying a different health care need. The fast-growing accumulation of brightly colored sticky notes of different hues on the mental health sheet signified that topic is the top health concern in the Eau Claire area, according to attendees of the program titled “Eau Claire County Community Conversation: Prioritizing Our Top Health Concerns.”
“For sure that’s one of the biggest health concerns here,” said Chippewa Falls resident Kealy Cotton, one of several dozen meeting attendees who listened to a presentation about local health issues and then discussed and ranked them. “Mental health might be the biggest need here.”
Cotton wasn’t alone among those at the meeting who ranked mental health as a high health care priority. The sheet designated for mental health received the most postings, followed by those labeled substance use and alcohol misuse. Those results weren’t a surprise to Eau Claire City/County Health Department director Lieske Giese. During a similar health assessment three years ago, those topics were also ranked as the biggest local health needs, she said.
“Those seem to be the priorities that most people feel we need to address,” Giese said. “There seems to be a lot of agreement about that.”
Meeting attendees aren’t the only people who feel that way. A survey of about 1,400 Eau Claire County residents in the fall showed those same three items ranked highest, with mental health garnering top status. Those same three topics were rated as most important to address in a survey of about 900 people in Chippewa County, expect drug abuse was deemed the most urgent health problem there.
Some of those at Thursday’s meeting expressed surprise at some health rankings in Eau Claire County. For instance, figures show substance abuse rates here are significantly higher than state and national averages.
“We need to look at root causes. ... That would be key to helping solve some of these problems,” Deb Bruning of Mondovi said.
Thursday’s meeting was the third of four being held this month in Chippewa and Eau Claire counties to solicit citizens’ health priorities. Similar ranking sessions occurred at previous meetings in Chippewa Falls and Cornell. A previously canceled meeting will take place Tuesday at the Augusta Community and Senior Center, 601 Main St., Augusta.
The survey is a combined effort involving health departments in Eau Claire and Chippewa County, local health care providers and the United Way of the Greater Chippewa Valley. Those entities decided three years ago to combine their assessments and work together to seek solutions.
Mental health, drug and alcohol abuse were ranked as highest priorities then, and efforts such as Eau Claire Healthy Communities, which arose from those discussions, have made inroads on addressing those issues. Chief among those was the securing of a $1 million grant more than five years by Eau Claire and Chippewa counties to improve mental health.
“It is a big, complicated topic, and a lot of agencies are working together on it,” United Way executive director Jan Porath said of mental health initiatives. “It is a very tough issue with no easy solutions. But we feel we are starting to make some headway.”
In addition to letting local health officials know what citizens feel health priorities are, the meetings also serve an educational purpose, Porath said. “Part of this is about awareness,” she said.
The surveys and citizen rankings are part of the process of determining local health priorities, officials said. Staff from health departments, health care providers and the United Way will add data to the rankings and said they plan to release final rankings by May.
“Once we determine these health priorities, what are we going to do about them?” Giese said. “How do we use this information to help prevent negative health outcomes? That is really the focus of this effort.”