Why local government and mental health?

The team here are Beacon Strategies has supported a diverse range of organisations to plan, design and evaluate mental health programs and services - from Primary Health Networks (who fund community based mental health services) to service provider organisations (who deliver community based mental health services).

Given that our team’s knowledge base in rooted deeply in public health and we all acknowledge and subscribe to the power of the social determinants of health, when working with funders and service providers we often ask ourselves “what about protective factors, prevention and early intervention?”. On reading further and talking with colleagues from the local government sector we believe that there is a huge opportunity to make our communities more conducive to maintaining and improving mental health and that local governments can play an active role in achieving this.

Now, you may be thinking that local government may not have the appetite to be involved in supporting such a cause and that their thinking may be bound to the traditional ‘roads, rates and rubbish’. Where this may be true for some councils, progressive councils see mental health as very much part of their responsibility and remit.  

The Victorian Health Promotion Foundation has previously stated in Improving Mental Wellbeing - Local Government Actions Guide that councils can positively impact the mental wellbeing of all individuals, families and communities by building resilient communities and increasing social connection (). As mentioned earlier, both of these concepts resonate with us because we hear the same thing from members of the community and health professionals in our mental health related work. 

How can councils create mentally healthy communities? 

Planning

Councils can embed the voice of the community in all planning related activities e.g. neighbourhood planning, local infrastructure planning and broader social planning to implement plans and strategies that will meet the mental health needs of the community. From our work in the mental health sector there are many passionate community members and stakeholders who would love to play an active role in constructing a mental health conscious community.

Through needs assessment and population level data analysis, councils are in a unique position to identify specific population groups, individuals or areas within the community that could be at higher risk of social isolation or reduced mental wellbeing and lead local level planning and coordination to enact positive change.

Programs

Councils have the ability to invest and provide programs and services, particularly to support local residents transitioning into key life stages, including maternal and child health programs, childcare and kindergarten programs, youth-based based and family and retirement services. It is critical that the programs and services purchased by council meet the needs of the community, are evidence-based and are designed with evaluation at front and centre of mind.

Additionally, councils are well positioned to support key community organisations such as charities, community groups, neighbourhood houses, senior citizens clubs, men’s sheds and sporting clubs as important local assets where people can maintain their social connections and be part of their local community. Councils have a responsibility for developing and supporting organisations in their own backyard for the benefit of the community. Sector development is key to building capacity in both formal and informal organisations in the region to enable opportunities for social inclusion and connection.

Evaluation

From an evaluation perspective, local governments are ideally placed to set explicit goals and objectives in relation to reducing inequities in resilience rates and social connections as well as examining the outcome of local policies and programs for different social groups. The appetite for evaluation amongst government and service providers is continuing to rise. We believe that local governments are best placed (primarily due to consistent funding) to continually shape their programs and policies over time in line with community outcomes. Further, a focus on place-based initiatives and areas of high vulnerability within a council area allow councils to deliver programs and policies (and measure their impact) at a granular level.

In closing, we think there is untapped potential in working with Local Governments to seek opportunities to engage community members in planning, design programs and service models in line with evidence and take the time to monitor and evaluate programs and services with the view to continuously improving the mental health of local communities. 

We would love to connect with anyone who is currently working on mental health related programs and policies within the local government environment.

As a mission-based health and social services consultancy, Beacon Strategies is committed to partnering with organisations to better plan, design, implement, evaluate and communicate their work in delivering health outcomes for local communities. Click the button below to access other insights from our recently completed work or head to https://www.beaconstrategies.net/local-government.