CONNECT Summit County brings network of support to those in need
May has been recognized as Mental Health Awareness Month since 1949
Every May, mental wellness nonprofits around the nation bring attention to mental health issues and work to reduce the stigma. In Summit County, one organization’s been making similar strides to let the community know they’re supported.
Since forming in 2016, CONNECT Summit County’s mission has been to increase awareness and reduce barriers related to behavioral health services in the Park City area and build a support network in the county. When the coronavirus pandemic began, the organization, and others like it, quickly realized there was a growing need for resources in the community. Over the last two years, as mental health has been eroded, CONNECT Summit County has tried to bring people together amid a time of distance.
Now, for the first time since 2020, nearly all the organization’s Mental Health Awareness Month events are in person. For Julya Sembrat, the executive director of CONNECT Summit County, it’s exciting to get back to regular business.
“With the pandemic, we saw an uptick in those reaching out which shows there’s stigma reduction,” Sembrat said. “Summit County has been breaking taboos but there are still some feelings of shame. It takes time, that’s why communication is important.”
Last year, CONNECT Summit County made it a priority not to exclude those seeking services based on cost, language or culture.
To kick off Mental Health Awareness Month, the organization and Park City Film partnered for a screening of “Marvelous and the Black Hole,” a coming-of-age story that addresses grief and navigating tough times. The organizations later collaborated for a showing of “For Love,” a documentary about how colonization has impacted the Indigenous population in Canada. The film touches on the child welfare system in the country as well as the loss of cultural identity and includes themes of resilience and resurgence.
Summit County teens were also given the chance to share their perspectives on mental health, substance abuse, and how adults can better support the youth in their lives during a youth panel hosted by CONNECT Summit County.
On Saturday, the organization will host its biggest event, which is a celebration of mental wellness, at noon at Park City Community Church. Marketed as a mental health festival, Sembrat said Connect, Dance, Play is the result of collaboration with several community organizations.
Attendees are invited to connect with their creative spirit, take free arts and crafts classes or watch the Viva el Folklore Internacional, a Spanish dance group. People can also practice mindfulness by walking through a labyrinth or healing through animal connection by spending time with puppies. Guests can also take a meditation or Qigong lesson to learn new coping skills that promote mental wellness.
The event will also include games like Connect 4, Cornhole and Giant Jenga, as well as food vendors and information about community resources and upcoming classes. At the end of the day, participants are invited to an open mic session to share their experiences or offer support to others.
Sembrat said the event, like most of the organization’s activities, helps connect Summit County and reminds residents they’re not alone. COVID-19 caused a transitional period for most families as they grappled with job insecurity, housing issues and other uncertainties. Combined with existential issues related to climate change and the ongoing drought, Sembrat said many saw mental health issues begin to arise.
“The world has certainly changed. It’s been hard to maintain a sense of community,” she said. “People are reaching out for themselves and others. It’s not just youth in need of support, it’s older people too.”
As people struggle with how to cope, Sembrat said CONNECT Summit County noticed gaps in available solutions. For example, the lack of area providers means that an individual is waiting up to three months to be seen.
She said her organization stepped in and began developing more programming, like support groups, to bring people together. This month, one focus of CONNECT Summit County is helping people address their problems and teaching them coping skills until they can speak with a mental health expert.
“How do they get by until that meeting?” Sembrat questioned.
CONNECT Summit County is also working to reduce the barriers associated with mental health services. No one should have to worry about paying for therapy, Sembrat said, so the organization rolled out a financial assistance program with the support of donors and community members to help cover the cost of care. Individuals living or working in Summit County are invited to apply and can receive up to 12 sessions a year with a therapist of their choosing.
Sembrat said that five people have applied for the financial assistance program so far, but she expects the number to increase in the future. Since the organization started collecting data, around 2020, 770 calls have been made to the peer navigation line – which isn’t a crisis hotline but a tool that connects callers to support and information – and 509 resources were provided.
To reach more of the community, CONNECT Summit County also revamped its mental health resource guide with new, updated information in English and Spanish and distributed the pamphlets across the county.
Sembrat said the effort is part of the organization’s goal of becoming more unified with area providers and nonprofits rather than competing against them. The increased collaboration will help CONNECT Summit County push more of its strategic goals and plans to further engage with the community and improve attitudes towards mental health and wellness, Sembrat said.
She also highlighted the work of the Mental Wellness Alliance, which became a renewed focus for several partners last May, as the organizations better define how they’ll work together in the future. Led by the Park City Community Foundation, the alliance covers a multitude of issues related to mental health, including substance use, treatment and prevention for kids and adults.
Mental health and addiction go hand in hand, Sembrat said, and drug use has been increasing in the Wasatch Back. That’s why CONNECT Summit County plans to develop new sober events and programming this year.
“We want to reduce the stigma and let the community know they’re supported,” she said.
Although May is designated as Mental Health Awareness Month, the organization’s efforts don’t stop when June starts. Later this summer, the nonprofit is organizing an event with Summit Community Gardens to encourage residents to get outside and enjoy nature.
The event, slated for August, is a precursor to Suicide Prevention Month in September. Sembrat said there are plans to host several events addressing the topic in the fall, including one that looks specifically at youth sports and athletes’ mental health.
In November, CONNECT Summit County will prepare for Live PC Give PC, one of the biggest charity events in the community. Outreach efforts will continue into the winter season ahead of the holidays, which Sembrat said is when many people need support.
One of the biggest challenges in connecting to those in need is the time it takes to build relationships and education about the resources available. But once someone is willing to open up, Sembrat said they’ll see how receptive the community can be.
“I wish more people knew that it’s okay not to be okay. I hope they know they have an organization here to represent them that they can reach out to,” Sembrat said. “We are there to help provide you with a starting point. . . CONNECT is the place to start, we will help support you, and we will help get you to the place you need to be.”
English speakers can connect with a peer navigator by calling or texting 435-776-4357. A Spanish-speaking peer navigator is available at 435-655-1230. For more information, visit connectsummitcounty.org.
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Readers around Park City and Summit County make the Park Record's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.