Well Being Trust heeds the call to pursue social justice

Recently, Tyler Norris, MDiv, chief executive of Well Being Trust (WBT) described a discussion he had a few years ago with a few Sisters of Providence and St. Joseph. He asked their thoughts about their charge for Well Being Trust to take a ‘social movement approach’ to improving mental health outcomes and to solving the deaths of despair.

There’s one particular comment from the Sisters that’s indelibly imprinted on Tyler’s mind, rooted in hopes and aspirations: "We can't tell you what to do, because we don't know. But we ask that you take prudent risks for the poor and vulnerable by watching the signs of the times."

The Sisters’ statement is deeply moving to Tyler and it sums up his view of Well Being Trust’s mission — perhaps now more than ever. The signs of the times are calling for the kind of work Well Being Trust has been doing for the past four years.

Well Being Trust was created by Providence for such a time as this. Tyler Norris explains more in the following interview.

To Your Health (TYH): How did Well Being Trust begin?

Tyler Norris (TN): For the past two decades, rates of deaths by opioids, alcohol and suicide have doubled — devastating families and communities and placing a heavy burden on our caregivers. About the same time, mental health and addiction became a significant focal point for Providence. That’s when Dr. Hochman and the sponsors called for Well Being Trust to lead the way nationally, while helping the healthcare system and its partners lead in their regions.

Providence launched Well Being Trust in 2016 as an independent public charity. Guided by our board, we have set the goal of saving 100,000 lives from deaths of despair in a decade and also increasing healthy life years. Deaths of despair specifically refers to alcohol, opioids and suicide. But the reasons for these deaths must be acknowledged, too. Isolation, hopelessness and despair are caused by an array of social and economic forces, including racism and social injustice.

These deaths have led the way to a decrease in the lifespan of the American people, after a century of the lifespan increasing by almost 24 years. Given the need to catalyze “distributed leadership,” the Sisters encouraged Well Being Trust to take a “social movement” approach that can benefit all in America, starting with our communities. With that in mind, Well Being Trust is strongly linked to the Sisters’ call for social justice.

TYH: What is Well Being Trust’s approach to social justice?

TN: Starting in 2017, we reverse-engineered multiple past social movements, and began building the needed nationwide “infrastructure” for the mental health and well-being movement.  All of this is rooted in a shared commitment to engaging people who are living the experiences of social injustice.

A few of our investments include:

  • Co-creating and seed-investing in the Providence Clinical Performance Group (CPG). It’s focused on mental health and substance use and sets a new bar for quality care.
  • Creating the Framework for Excellence in Mental Health and Well-Being & Healing the Nation to shape state and federal policy. It increases affordable access to integrated mental health and addiction care, while enforcing parity and quality standards.
  • Co-founding Inseparable.us. It’s a new mental health policy-advocacy organization that mobilizes the resources and political will to assure a care support system that’s there for everyone.
  • Partnering with Kenneth Cole and The Mental Health Coalition. This group brings new and inclusive narratives and the voice of lived experience to normalize the conversation and mobilize action.
  • Designing and implementing whole person care delivery with the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, our founding partner Providence, and others. This program integrates mental and physical healthcare, while meeting social needs via clinical-community partnership.
  • Co-founding Mindful Philanthropy to bring far more resources to the field and focus investments that have the greatest potential for impact. These include direct services, capacity building, policy and advocacy, and research and innovation.
  • Co-creating and serving as the lead investor in the WIN Network ecosystem of communities and organizations. We work together across issues and perspectives to advance intergenerational well-being and equity.
  • Providing more than 100 catalytic investments in communities and organizations to test and demonstrate proof points about what works. The solutions can be scaled to advance the mental, social and spiritual health of the nation.

All of these programs and organizations were built for Providence and its local partners to use and leverage. They inform the aligned actions Providence and its partners take at the community level. Most importantly, they save lives in our ministries.

TYH: What impact do you see from recent events: COVID-19, unemployment and the focus on racism?

TN: COVID-19 hit just as we put this national movement infrastructure in place. Soon we saw — not unsurprisingly from all we know about health disparities — that Black people and other people of color in the U.S. were being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Then George Floyd was murdered, and the nation began to face inequity, racism and related systems failures in ways that have been ignored for centuries. These developments helped us re-center equity at the heart of the mental health conversation — just as it has been since we were founded.

Now the economic and social dislocation triggered by COVID-19, with 40 million people out of work, has led to even higher rates of anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation and substance misuse. Sadly, we also see higher rates of abused people who have been forced to shelter in place with their abuser. Following the COVID-19 infection curve, this is being called “the second curve of the depths of despair.” Most of our recent work is focused on flattening this second curve.

TYH: How is Well Being Trust addressing these monumental issues?

TN: In these times of pain and protest, possibility and purpose, I often return to my conversation with the Sisters: “…to take prudent risks for the poor and vulnerable by watching the signs of the times." As a person of faith and a chaplain by training, I know that their vision — made manifest by Dr. Hochman and system leaders — is why Well Being Trust is here, and why I am here. I follow the north star the Sisters are pointing to, standing firm in their commitment to radical inclusion and social justice, and caring for every soul, every family, every community. 

In the midst of these multi-crises, Well Being Trust has been able to leverage four years of movement-building as an organization rooted in social justice and respond to the signs of the times at the national level. This work is also designed to help health system leaders respond at the local level.

We are heartened to see Providence regional and local leaders begin to adapt and apply in their communities, what Well Being Trust has invested in. These actions range from BeWell OC to Work2BeWell to the #BeWell, #BeHeard, #BeThere campaigns. They include leveraging learnings from the $30 million investments in California and the tools, solution sets, relationships and movement infrastructure described earlier. 

Well Being Trust exists to advance the mental, social and spiritual health of the nation. We are thrilled to be partnering with our health system and local caregiver leaders to do what our small national team can never do alone: lead the work on the ground in our ministries, with trusted partners.

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Related resources

Building communities that will stand against COVID-19

Well Being Trust

Well Being 2019 Annual Report

Sisters of Providence: Social Justice

Ending Racial Disparities in Healthcare

Here to help: What to know about child abuse during COVID-19

Well Being Trust: Social Engagement

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