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Community Development TIG Week: Integrative Community Therapy: Building Community While Supporting Mental Health in Allentown, PA by Cheryl Arndt, Samantha Shaak, and Edward Norris

We are Cheryl Arndt, PhD, Samantha Shaak, PhD, and Edward Norris, MD from the Leonard Parker Pool Institute for Health (LPPIH) at Lehigh Valley Health Network (LVHN) in Allentown, PA. The Institute focuses on creating meaningful and sustained improvements in overall health through innovations targeting the drivers that influence health within a community, or the vital conditions. As we build a model for community development, we know that developing a sense of belonging and community well-being is the intangible lynchpin to sustainable change. Today, we’d like to share an innovative model for promoting mental health and thriving in our community. 

The City of Allentown, like most communities, is experiencing a high need for mental health care and a lack of sufficient providers. To address this need, LVHN and LPPIH partnered with the Visible Hands Collaborative (VHC) to bring Integrative Community Therapy (ICT) to Allentown. ICT is a dialogic, therapeutic, group modality that was created by Dr. Adalberto Barreto, in his home country of Brazil, as a meaningful, low-cost way to provide community mental health services. Since then, it has been adopted in 42 countries worldwide. 

Our vision in implementing ICT was that we would 1) support community development by helping community members support one another, 2) encourage the use of healthy coping strategies, 3) build capacity and connections among local staff. Thirty-five people from 17 local social service agencies, representing a cross-section of the community, participated in the training. The training took place over four months and included two full-day, in-person events and weekly virtual sessions.

Knowing that capturing a sense of belonging or connection to others within the context of community development can be challenging, we worked with VHC to develop an evaluation plan that starts with the training and initial implementation of ICT and that we will continue to build on.

1. Training Evaluation

The training was evaluated through the use of polls, on both the kick-off and wrap-up days, that asked about hopes and concerns about practicing ICT following the Kirkpatrick Model.   Additionally, each trainee wrote a final paper about their training experience.  Both methods showed trainees responded positive to the training and had many ideas about adapting ICT to the groups they work with and to US culture. Of particular interest, 85% of participants felt that the training fostered a sense of belonging. Participants’ narratives also highlighted that they felt ICT could be a good tool to create connections and a sense of healing within rounds and in participants’ lives in general. They also felt that ICT will help people feel less alone and that it is “an amazing opportunity—for facilitators and community.”

2. Implementation Evaluation

The newly trained facilitators will submit evaluations after each ICT round they hold which captures: the number of people attending, session themes, coping strategies identified, incorporation of ICT principles, information about any referrals to mental health services, and a summary of participants’ learnings. Additionally, after each ICT round, participants will be invited to complete a three-item survey about the session which includes the items: “I felt valued in the ICT round” and “The ICT round built a sense of community.”

Initial evaluation findings suggest that ICT may be a useful tool for developing a sense of belonging within communities. We will continue to implement additional evaluation after ICT implementation has been occurring for six months to determine whether ICT is implemented regularly and if it develops a social fabric of healing and support in Allentown.

Rad Resources

The American Evaluation Association is hosting Community Development TIG Week with our colleagues in the Community DevelopmentTopical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to AEA365 come from our CD TIG members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this AEA365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the AEA365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an AEA365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to AEA365@eval.org. AEA365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators. The views and opinions expressed on the AEA365 blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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