“Amazing Asset” Ready to Expand Outreach to Those in Need


By Les Gura

Robert Willis (pictured above left with Graylin Carlton), director of CareNet Counseling Northwest Region, has lived in the area for more than a decade. He’s well aware that the average household income is $13,000 less per year than the North Carolina state average.

But Willis also is familiar with the resilience of the people who live in the rural and often geographically remote parts of CareNet Counseling Northwest’s coverage area, which is Alexander, Alleghany, Ashe, Caldwell, Iredell, Surry, Watauga, Wilkes and Yadkin counties.

“People here want to take care of themselves,” Willis says. “They have a ‘I-want-to-stand-on-my-own-two-feet’ mentality. It’s an amazing asset to the community.”

Many area residents find uplifting ways to overcome financial and emotional barriers in their lives, but Willis and CareNet Counseling Northwest are committed to reaching those who struggle.

Mental health first aid

Working in a new partnership with the FaithHealth team that is now part of Wake Forest Baptist Health Wilkes Medical Center, CareNet Counseling Northwest is planning new initiatives to reach people who traditionally have not sought assistance in difficult times.

One concept of the FaithHealth program — helping those most in need via outreach to congregations — is perfectly in line with CareNet’s model of integrating faith into care, a practice the agency has carried out since 1982.

In fact, CareNet Counseling Northwest has for several years offered a mental health first aid program aimed at educating people in Wilkes County and beyond to understand and recognize basic mental health problems.

More than 300 people, including pastors, mental health professionals, teachers and lawyers, have already been trained through the CareNet Counseling Northwest program, which was funded by the Health Foundation of Wilkes.

“There is a cultural piece in the community that says mental health should be treated differently than physical health,” Willis says. “We are helping people understand that (poor) mental health is an illness. We want folks to receive support and care with whatever they’re struggling with.”

Resiliency and outreach

Teresa Cutts, assistant professor of social sciences and health policy with Wake Forest Baptist, says CareNet Counseling Northwest is “way ahead of the bandwagon” when it comes to resiliency and outreach to those most in need.

With steady declines in manufacturing in recent years, many people lost their jobs or had to take lower-paying positions. As economic situations change, people sometimes turn to alcohol or drugs, Cutts notes, and stressors on families increase.

One tenet of FaithHealth — a goal shared by CareNet Counseling Northwest — is reaching people before they find themselves in an emergency room in distress.

“We’re working to find that sweet spot where we engage the community and bring behavioral health in to help people,” she says. “Wilkes itself is a huge, geographically diverse county. We want to do anything we can to help people better deal with stressors.

“If we can build a better safety net, we will be able to make a difference.”

Making connections

Rev. Graylin Carlton, raised in Boomer and North Wilkesboro, recently became chaplain with Wake Forest Baptist Health Wilkes Medical Center, after serving on the FaithHealth team in Winston-Salem.

He believes the commitment of CareNet Counseling Northwest to reach more people, especially those in need, aligns perfectly with his chaplaincy and FaithHealth outreach. He says his goal is to make connections with patients, their families and the community. The result, he says, can be a natural growth of referrals to CareNet Counseling Northwest.

In Winston-Salem, the problems of those in need often went beyond physical or behavioral health to encompass life difficulties such as paying bills, taking prescribed medications or remembering follow-up doctors’ appointments.

“Being rural presents different problems,” Carlton says. “Transportation is much more difficult. And people here are used to making it on their own. So, we have to help change the mindset somewhat.”

Willis says CareNet Counseling Northwest looks forward to working with Carlton and the FaithHealth team.

“The CareNet model is we don’t ask people to check a part of themselves at the door,” he says. “We want them to bring their spiritual assets and also their spiritual injuries, their relational assets and their relational injuries. Our counselors not only have clinical training, but (most) have gone through a two-year residency program in faith integration.”

Focus on mental health awareness

Bill Warden, a Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center board member who has lived in Wilkes County since 1976, says that in a rural area where people “are closely bound to their churches … faith-based counseling certainly has the potential to be more effective than other forms of counseling.”

Willis says over the first six months of 2018, he expects to work with members of the FaithHealth team to create a more formal plan to address the region’s greatest needs. From CareNet Counseling Northwest’s perspective, he says, that means focusing on mental health and awareness.

“We want to open up mental health care access to more folks,” Willis says. “And I would say the opposite would be true also — that our longtime presence in Wilkes opens up access to more folks for FaithHealth.”

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