Address Behavioral Health Issues To Strengthen Our Community

By Randy Boehm

The stories of molestation victim Debra Knight, working-class parent James Butler and the others featured in the newspaper’s recent “Left Behind” series on poverty struck a chord with us at Great Circle.

As the area’s most comprehensive nonprofit provider of behavioral health services, our sole purpose is to support and champion children and families. Every day, we meet individuals struggling to overcome the devastating emotional and physical consequences that grow from having inadequate financial resources. 

We work daily to reduce the stigma and barriers around seeking behavioral health care, because it’s crucial to both make this a community conversation and show families it’s okay to seek services before they reach a crisis point. We know that when children and families are stronger, our community is stronger.

All families may experience stress and conflict at some point – a natural function of living together under one roof. Add in a lack of money, secure housing, sufficient food, transportation and steady employment, and things can quickly snowball out of control, ripping a family into pieces. Without adequate resources, parents may neglect or abuse their children, or turn to illicit substances to cope with life’s pressures. For an increasing number of children in Missouri, the next step is often foster care.

There are real and lasting consequences if our community ignores the behavioral health aspect of poverty. Compelling evidence shows exposure to adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, can have a lifelong impact. The more ACEs, such as extreme family instability, homelessness, family violence and substance abuse, a person experiences as a child, the more likely they are to suffer, as adults, from behavioral health issues and ongoing health challenges, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, COPD and diabetes.

That becomes a perfect storm of economic challenges. Along with the significantly higher costs for healthcare, there’s added cost of placing more and more children in foster care. For the 26,000 youth who “age out” of foster care each year nationally, the challenges can continue. Often without adequate preparation for adulthood, they’re at greater risk of perpetuating the traumatic cycle of abuse, neglect, poor health, living in poverty, unemployment or incarceration – all of which create economic burdens for society.

That’s why at Great Circle we focus on building family strength early, because we know preventing problems is more productive and far less costly than addressing problems after they’ve surfaced.  Breaking that cycle drives us to aggressively work to ensure services are available to families in every county in Missouri.

Our name, Great Circle, grew out of a 2009 merger between Boys & Girls Town of Missouri and Edgewood Children’s Center. Though our founding roots were in child welfare, we rapidly refocused our efforts on creating the comprehensive circle of support we know is critical to break the cycle. We want Great Circle to be the first step, and not a last resort, for any child or family experiencing difficulties.

In less than a decade, we’ve doubled our outreach and almost tripled our service locations, enabling us to deliver a full range of programs including: 24-hour specialized care, autism services, crisis services, day programs, and home and community-based services to support both parent and child. We also partner with 63 school districts statewide to provide specialized education services on our campuses for children who struggle because of factors beyond their control.

On our six-acre Columbia campus, we provide an elementary and secondary school, and treatment programs for children who cannot live in the family home. Plus in 2016, we reached another 4,171 lives through home and community-based services delivered to families living throughout central and northeast Missouri. Yet, more effort is needed.

  • Join with us to reduce the stigma around mental health and behavioral health issues in our community, and encourage seeking help earlier.
  • Consider becoming a foster family, or encourage someone you know to help meet the needs of the growing number of children coming into care.
  • Help us recruit caring, motivated healthcare staff that wants to make a positive difference in the lives of area children and families.
  • Add your voice to the conversation and challenge others to invest in our community by financially supporting education, prevention and earlier intervention efforts that break the cycle and strengthen children and families.

Having access to needed services is a key factor in determining where a family chooses to live, and in a community’s continued vibrancy and economic strength. Our community takes pride in our hospitals, universities, parks and culture. Yet our greatest strength will come from lifting up those who are in danger of being left behind.

Whether struggling to break the cycle of poverty or needing access to behavioral health, every child and family deserves our community’s full support.

Randy Boehm is the current chair of Great Circle’s Central Regional Advisory Council and former chief of Columbia Police Department.