Herston discusses local response to mental health crisis

Published 9:00 am Thursday, May 9, 2024

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VALLEY — May has been recognized as Mental Health Awareness Month in the United States since 1949. For 75 years now, the month of May has had a focus on mental health through the media, civic clubs, local events and film screenings.

This month, the Kiwanis Club of Valley is spotlighting ongoing efforts to assist those who are struggling with their mental health and what can be done to make everyone more aware of this long-time social problem. At the club’s noon hour meetings on Wednesday, a speaker will be discussing what is being done in the local area to help people in need of assistance.

The first speaker in the series was Jonathan Herston, executive director of the Chambers County Circle of Care Center for Families. Since its founding in November 1996, the Circle of Care has been using proven research to provide education, resources, and support to help families in Chambers County and the Greater Valley Area become stronger, healthier and happier.

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Herston told members of the club that one of the first things he did when he became director in 2017 was to meet with people from all over the county and ask them what they thought were needs that should be addressed. “Mental health was one of problems most frequently s,” he said. “It was frequently brought up to me by law enforcement officers.”

Herston said that many officers told him of a frequent problem that led to people being incarcerated over and over in jail: they commit petty crimes to medicate themselves with illegal drugs.

At one point in his career, Herston took some time off to go back to college to earn a Master’s degree in Psychology from Auburn University. He made some valuable contacts to have university-level counselors available to work with local people who are struggling with mental health and other issues.

One of the Circle’s biggest success stories in recent years is a program known as Searchlight Counseling. It began in the Circle’s building in Medical Park but quickly outgrew the available space there. “Searchlight grew from two to five therapists,” he said. “We acquired Dr. Downs’ former medical practice to give them adequate space.”

Searchlight Counseling helps both individuals and couples chart courses for emotional freedom, wholeness and well being. Counselors meet each person where they are in life and collaborate with them to create customized treatment plans and to prioritize their goals and needs.

A ribbon cutting will soon be taking place at Searchlight’s new building.

A Circle program that has gotten high praise statewide is Renew Hope, which seeks to raise awareness of the problem of human trafficking. It’s dedicated to educating, informing and training community members and front line workers on issues related to human trafficking. Adrian Carpenter heads up the program and has talked about it in all regions of the state.

“If you don’t see Adrian as much as you used to it’s because he’s been around the state talking about Renew Hope,” Herston said.

Another highly acclaimed program of the Circle of Care is the Innovation Center, which has won a statewide award. The Innovation Center is located inside the Circle of Care’s main building and provides the work space for those with entrepreneurial ambition the opportunity to build a grow a new business.

The Circle has abundant resources to help people to have better lives. These include GED classes and Work Keys certification, Young Adult Employment Services (the YES! Project), Relationship Education and Enrichment and a Business Resource Center.

Herston thanked Sheriff Jeff Nelson for partnering with the Circle in a job training program. “We are having some job training at the Chambers County jail,” he said. “We would like for people to have a job lined up when they are released. We’d like to have them doing something productive and to break the cycle of going right back to jail.”

A member of the Kiwanis Club asked Herston if he had seen the Circle grow in its outreach to the community in his time there. “I think we had ten staff members when I became director,” he said. “We now have 22 full time and 26 part time employees. Our budget has nearly doubled since then. I attribute this to having some really good people on our staff who are doing great work for the community.”

The Circle of Care is a 501(c)3 organization but is different from most nonprofits. Most of them have a single focus, such as getting food to the needy. That’s important enough, but the Circle is taking on multiple needs, such as counseling people on mental health-related issues, job training, starting a new business and on.

A big problem for some people is transportation. “If I tell someone there’s a great counselor they can go and see in Auburn, if they have no reliable way to get there I may as well tell them they are in Austin, Texas,” he said. “We are doing what we can to have those services right here in Chambers County.”

There’s a wealth of information about the Circle and what it does on its web page. It can be reached at thecirclecares.com. Searchlight Counseling can be reached at (334) 470-5398.