June 12, 2021
Lawrence, US 83 F
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Nate Morsches: Businesses can and must be part of the solution to the mental health crisis (Column)

Note: The Lawrence Times runs opinion columns and letters to the Times written by community members with varying perspectives on local issues. These pieces do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Times staff.

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In my previous column, I wrote about why I believe mental illness is the second pandemic. I explained how as an ER and ICU nurse during the pandemic I learned that our biggest problem right now is the mental health crisis, and suggested that we should change our stance toward loosening social distancing restrictions and allow for a recovery of our collective mental health.

But my role in the community is not just as a registered nurse. I also own RPG (Restaurant, Pub & Games) on Massachusetts Street. And I’m here to say that we as businesses, having access to resources and network connections, must do our part to reach a collective solution to the rapid increase in mental illness.

A simple model for local businesses is to build partnerships with Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center. Businesses such as CEK Insurance, Emprise Bank, MidAmerica Credit Union, and The Trust Company have donated financially to support the work of this exemplary nonprofit that directly impacts the local mental health crisis.

Other businesses have partnered with Bert Nash in very creative ways, too. For example, Jackalope made a video for one of Bert Nash’s fundraising events for a steep discount, McGrew Real Estate sponsored the center’s child and family summer program and Ashley McCaskill, Creative Consultant & Designer, has done work to help promote the Discover Bert Nash Tours. BodyTruth Soap Apothecary, a Lawrence BIPOC- and woman-owned business, donated more than 50 boxes of soap to Bert Nash’s homeless outreach team this past winter, which helps with hygiene and personal dignity, both of which help mental health.

Many businesses have used a unique and immensely important national program initiated by Julia Gaughan, Bert Nash Center’s prevention and education manager. She is the lead instructor for an educational program called Mental Health First Aid, and many businesses in our community have invited her to teach their employees to effectively provide mental health first aid. This grassroots movement is just getting started, and the more that businesses take advantage of this service, the more it will enable people to serve their neighbors in this important way.

Another aspect of mental health is food insecurity. Not having enough food is a big cause of stress and mental illness. There are plenty of local businesses that directly make an impact in this important area.

For instance, Meg Heriford of Ladybird Diner has become a beacon of community support. At the beginning of the pandemic, she turned her restaurant into a meal kitchen and food pantry for the homeless and food-insecure. By giving out free lunches, she supports their mental well-being by answering the question of where they will get their next meal. Local businesses such as Rodrock Chiropractic, Mateo Chiropractic, Encore, and Archibowls also have provided meals for the food-insecure in recent months. Chick Fil A provided the Ballard Center with 75 meals three times per week for a period of time. Johnny’s Tavern and 6 Mile Chop House also gave food to the organization. 

Obviously, efforts like these help with food insecurity, but what really is great about this, as Julia Price, education director at the Ballard Center, told me, is that it gives their staff a non-threatening reason to lay eyes on some of the kids who have experienced childhood trauma, if their guardians were hesitant beforehand.

In another example of businesses helping the community, Jayhawk Pharmacy donates multivitamins to children at the Ballard Center, providing assistance with both mental health development and maintenance. 

And there’s more: K’s Tires and Big O Tires provided vouchers for car repairs. Best Western has donated hotel rooms for people in crisis, particularly victims of domestic abuse. Pine’s Garden Center bought gift cards for food and gas for childhood trauma victims’ households. 

The list goes on of businesses like these that have access to resources that can help those in need and those who struggle with mental health. With efforts like this, each of these stressors gets relieved in people, thereby building mental health.

My business, RPG, has written into its DNA a natural bent toward helping in this effort. Our mission is to build community, and we accomplish this by promoting camaraderie over good food, drinks and playing board games. The relationship-building accomplished in our establishment is substantial, and it helps people feel a sense of belonging, mutual respect, compassion and, in some cases, even a purpose. 

In one online review, someone said, “RPG is the most relevant cultural hub in Lawrence,” and as humbled as I am to hear that, it causes me to challenge myself to use that hub to help our community’s mental health.

We’ve also built a partnership with Bert Nash, offering employees there special discounts. Supporting them as they do the good work of serving those with mental illness in our community is a priority for us. If we can make social workers and mental health practitioners feel appreciated, then they can do their jobs better.

All of these businesses that have already joined the cause and have taken it upon themselves to fight against mental illness are just a start. All businesses must self-reflect and see how they can uniquely serve the community to help support mental health.

The people of our community need it. We, along with many communities all over our country, are in crisis. If we can’t figure out creative ways – if not direct financial ways – to benefit our community, then what are we business people really aiming for in the first place? Personal gain? How sad it would be if business owners could not look outside themselves and see the death and destruction all around them being caused by mental illness.

I call on all local business owners to join the fight and serve our community by defending the mental well-being of our neighbors, friends, family, coworkers, fellow citizens and residents of our city and surrounding areas. 

— Nate Morsches (he/him) is an entrepreneur, president and co-founder of RPG on Mass Street, a registered nurse at a Kansas City-area hospital as a frontlines ER and ICU nurse throughout the pandemic, sits on the boards of the Lawrence Restaurant Association and Trinity In-Home Care, is a graduate of the Leadership Lawrence class of 2020, and is a Network Leader and Elder at CityChurch Lawrence.

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