Mental Health Awareness Month Interview With Sheba Rogers

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and as the month draws to a close, we wanted to highlight the work of our Senior Program Manager, Sheba Rogers, who is currently undertaking a mental health ecosystem scan of Detroit. We asked Sheba about what she’s been working on, and about the state of mental health care in our city.

For Mental Health Awareness Month, we wanted to highlight your mental health ecosystem scan. Can you talk about what the ecosystem scan is, and the kind of partners that you’ve been meeting with?

  • The ecosystem scan falls under DJC’s divest/invest work and is an opportunity for DJC to take a closer look at services and supports for individuals experiencing mental health considerations, harm reduction needs, and substance use disorder – a population that is often criminalized due to an underlying mental health need. The ecosystem scan includes research and interviews to better understand the system infrastructure, local offerings, challenges, funding, and community-based supports for individuals in need of mental wellness supports. Ultimately, this scan will inform where additional investments may be needed and areas where we may need to dive deeper to fully understand the breakdowns in systems of care that often lead to incarceration, houselessness, unemployment, and so on. 
  • I have had the opportunity to learn from local harm reduction organizations, including syringe service providers; from organizations who work closely with Detroit’s health department to provide substance use treatment and recovery programs; from community-based organizations building out peer respite centers; from currently and formerly incarcerated individuals who lead mental health programs inside of correctional facilities; along with system agency leaders who support funding and capacity building for providers in the mental health, substance use, harm reduction space.

We know you’re still working on the ecosystem scan, but so far, are there particular things that Detroit does well, or needs that are going unmet where we could be putting more resources?

  • Yes! There are some really inspiring efforts happening across the city. Our local harm reductionists and providers supporting mental/behavioral health genuinely care about the communities in which they serve. Many individuals who lead these organizations include people with lived experience; people in long-term recovery; people who were formerly incarcerated, and people harmed by policies that criminalize drug use or sex work. Leaders are passionate about addressing the systemic barriers to care and programming includes a plethora of options to meet the needs of community. Some exciting efforts include mobile syringe services and harm reduction supports; crisis intervention services for children and adults; the creation of new recovery centers and respite centers, and the utilization of data by providers to inform services and advocacy, to name a few.
  • There are a few areas where great support and investment is needed. There are numerous systemic barriers to care including limitations with funding for harm reduction supplies and the process to become an approved, licensed provider, for example. Also, many funding opportunities seek providers who are abstinent-focused, which limits the opportunity for harm reduction providers to offer services, making supplies and services inaccessible to many people in need. Another challenge is in the amount of time individuals can be serviced for substance use and recovery supports – one hundred and twenty days is not long enough. Given the nuances of recovery, one provider stated that the ideal amount of time needed to receive services or outpatient programming is about five years.

Can you tell us about The Future of Health and Justice: Bridging and Bridging Movements Conference in Atlanta that you attended this month? What sessions inspired you, and what did you find applicable to our work at DJC?

The conference was very inspiring and all of the sessions provided takeaways that are relevant to our work at DJC. One session looked at national movements and campaigns focused on decarceration and abolition – I always enjoy learning about the work in other cities to close down detention centers, stop prison construction, and advance policies that support harm reduction and behavioral health. One theme that resonated across sessions is the mindset shift, narrative shift, policy and funding changes necessary to truly invest in people and become more human-centered in our approach to health and justice. We have to build up people and communities in a holistic way, while funding basic necessities and making life-saving medications more accessible for people experiencing mental and behavioral health needs. Many speakers lifted up the need for a true divest/invest approach to health and justice… divesting in parole reforms and other system-focused efforts that perpetuate cycles of harm and incarceration, while investing more in the social determinants of health – economic stability, education, healthcare access, neighborhood and built environment, as well as social and community factors that contribute to health and trauma. While direct services are needed and beneficial, many organizations spoke about how they are going beyond direct services to also focus on advocacy, policy change, and power building with community to ensure sustainable transformation. Learning and networking with national leaders in the field has provided models of success for us to learn from and stay connected with as we continue to strengthen and synergize our local efforts to improve health and justice.  

What are you most looking forward to when you think about the convening you’re hosting in the fall for the ecosystem scan?

I am very excited about the convening this Fall! DJC is partnering with five organizations to plan a convening focused on mental health, substance use, and harm reduction. This gathering will bring together providers and people deeply connected to this work to share learnings, engage in collective visioning, and increase awareness about the specific needs and gaps in care in Detroit. Many service providers and initiatives are siloed across the city – so the planning team is most excited about providing this needed space for people to come together, synergize local efforts, and strategize toward collective goals. We are also excited to share our learnings from the ecosystem scan and showcase local data to help visualize existing services, gaps in care, and disparities in mental health services and outcomes. We know that to change the narrative, organize and build power to improve holistic outcomes, and to see greater investment in mental health supports across the city, we have to break down silos, increase collaboration, improve our infrastructure, and align around priorities for harm reduction, substance use, and mental health. We see this convening as a starting place to bridge connection, deeper engagement, and advocacy efforts – not simply a one-time event. Beyond the convening, we plan to continue engaging through roundtable meetings to codify policy and investment priorities that invest in people and stop the decriminalization of people experiencing mental health and harm reduction needs – ensuring that we as a community can meet these specific needs safely, holistically, and with dignity and care.

Can you share one to two highlights from your ecosystem scan so far – anything you’re particularly excited or inspired by?

Yes, absolutely. Recently I had the opportunity to connect with staff from Echo Detroit at Shar Academy and learned about some of their amazing work supporting individuals experiencing substance use disorder and recovery. They offer a wide range of services including support with recovery through 1:1 sessions with a certified recovery coach, alongside 14 mutual support group meetings throughout the week. I love their intentionality around data and their use of data platforms to better understand the ‘recovery capital’ for individuals receiving their services. I was new to the term ‘recovery capital’ – it helps to show individuals their value of recovery, where additional support and resources may be needed across systems of care and can help to provide a roadmap for long-term recovery and wellness. I was able to take a tour of their facility and was excited to see the upstairs wing that is being built out for women’s recovery housing. I even had the chance to meet the amazing father-son duo behind Master Plumber, Inc. – a 5th-generation Black-owned plumbing company – they are leading renovations for the new bathroom, kitchen, and other living corridors. Shar Academy received a 1.2-million-dollar grant for the construction of their recovery housing for women and for the development of their new community engagement center, which will offer diversion to incarceration through the respite lounge (up to a 24-hour stay) and connect people with treatment services, harm reduction supplies and other community supports. This adds to the many resources and services they already provide for the community, including a mental health resource fair, hosted the last Tuesday of every month. This is only a snapshot of their amazing work. I look forward to continuing to stay engaged with their efforts and services as they continue to expand and deepen their work in the community.

As you think about how this work is unfolding and how it will evolve, are there any lessons learned/ pearls of wisdom that you have gleaned so far?

As a social worker and native Detroiter who has been directly impacted by the incarceration of my parents due to mental and behavioral health challenges (and other systemic barriers), I approach this work from a community-based, care-based lens. I like to find and uplift the many gems across the city and state as there is so much promise in what people are already doing and what we can build upon. I have been really excited to connect with individuals who are personally invested in the mission and vision of improving mental health services, harm reduction supports, substance use treatment, recovery, and re-entry in a holistic way. This work is more than just researching the issues or planning mental health events…but is about the services and supports needed to ensure people are treated with dignity and respect and have access to care that allows them to address traumas and other root causes impacting mental health challenges – it’s truly about doing what it takes to ensure mental wellness for the long term, not just treating and pacifying the symptoms.

I am inspired by individuals like Omar Warlick, a member of the National Lifers of America, who helps to lead Free People, Free People – a grassroots organization supporting the mental health needs of people who are currently incarcerated and those impacted by the criminal justice system. Omar has been leading programs and developing curriculum for currently and formerly incarcerated individuals experiencing grief, loss, anger, depression, and other mental health challenges. He is motivated to see individuals experience true freedom from the traumas that stem from poverty and violence – issues of poverty, he says, are what ultimately lead to criminal activities. Their programs help to improve mental functioning by addressing mitigating circumstances of incarceration and help to boost self-esteem and morale. Omar has been incarcerated for 22 years but does not allow his incarceration to stifle his commitment and zeal to improving mental health wellness across communities. He has been joining our planning meetings for the mental health convening taking place this fall. It has been of great value to have him at the table with us. Omar’s expertise, passion, and thought partnership are inspirational and is a source of grounding as I think about the vision for community reinvestment for mental health in Detroit. One of the pearls of wisdom that I am reminded of is the importance of expanding our reach and having people from various backgrounds at the table to lead and co-create visions of care and safety – including youth, people with disabilities, elders, people from sovereign nations and other cultural backgrounds, incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals, harm reductionists, just to name a few. I look forward to deepening these relationships and collaborations as we build and advance mental health supports across the city.