Health Manager Orientation Guide

Engaging Community Partners to Support Mental Health

Man seated in a chair taking notes while listening to a conversation.A Head Start program can assess its strengths and needs in providing mental health services in many ways. It is important for mental health supports to be individualized to the specific needs of the children and families in the program. Best practice is to have in place a network of culturally and linguistically responsive community partners to support a variety of people and needs.

Community Assessment

The Head Start Program Performance Standards (HSPPS) require that programs determine community strengths, needs, and resources by conducting a community assessment at least once during a five-year grant period. This assessment must consider the health and mental health needs of children and families, social and economic factors that affect their well-being, and resources currently available in the community. The programs should review and update the community assessment every year to include any significant changes. This process helps to find specific issues that may affect mental health, with a goal of helping to design program services and supports.

Each community is different. What is happening in the immediate environment affects the growth, development, and resilience of children and families. Examples of issues that might be more acute in specific communities are higher-than-average unemployment or homelessness, higher rates of substance use, and significant rates of suicide, crime, or natural disasters.

Based on the community assessment, a program might need to change the number of mental health consultation hours or offer more professional development to staff to support the needs of themselves, children, and families. The community assessment may find needs that can be addressed through partnerships with more organizations in the service area, as well as potential referral sources. A health manager will likely be involved in planning and decision-making in response to gathered data.

Family Partnership Agreement

Family partnership agreements have important information about the strengths, interests, and needs of families. Health managers and others who support mental health services can review these formal agreements as well as information from conversations and observations to help find what families need, what resources would be helpful, and how to better support the social and emotional development of the children and the wellness of families. Other informal ways to gather information include keeping track of common concerns or challenges being shared by teachers, home visitors, and directly by families.

Consider the following questions:

  • How do you watch for and gather information throughout the year that you can use in your program planning for mental health services?
  • How can you use confidential surveys to decide if your mental health consultation support is enough to meet the needs of families and staff promptly and effectively?

Besides focusing on children and families, the HSPPS also ask that programs support staff by providing them with information about health issues and offering opportunities to learn about mental health, wellness, and health. Asking questions during staff meetings, while supervising (particularly reflective supervision), and through program-wide surveys are more ways to learn how to support staff wellness on an individual and program level. Sensitive questions are best asked when staff feel comfortable (e.g., in small groups or meetings) or when there is an opportunity to be anonymous (e.g., surveys). See the chapter on Staff Wellness for more information about supporting staff mental well-being.

Resource and Referral Network

A program’s resource guide should include community mental health services. The community assessment will inform which resources are the best fit for the children and families. It’s important to include services related to child and adult mental health support, domestic and interpersonal violence, and substance use disorder treatment and recovery. It is also helpful to consider a variety of formal agency-based services and informal community-based supports whenever possible.

Tips and Strategies for Supporting Mental Health

  • Make sure programs complete a full community assessment at least once during their grant period, with annual updates to reflect changes in the community.
  • Include questions on the community assessment that help to identify and better understand the behavioral health services and supports people are using, have access to, and prefer.
  • Modify infant and early childhood mental health consultation services as needed, based on the community assessment.
  • Include in the program’s resource guide a list of behavioral health supports and services with both informal and formal ways to refer families for services and supports.
  • Make sure each family fills out a family partnership agreement every year of enrollment.
  • Help programs use the family partnership agreements to guide mental health support and programming.