The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), is a worldwide organization with more than 64 million beneficiaries from 120 national associations. The Ann Arbor YMCA is a charitable association of men, women and children joined by a shared commitment to nurturing the potential of children and teens, promoting healthy living, and supporting its neighbors. Each day, it works to ensure that everyone, regardless of age, income or background, has the chance to learn, grow and thrive. The Ann Arbor YMCA’s mission is to put its core values of caring, honesty, respect and responsibility into action through facilities and programs that build healthy spirit, mind and body for all. It is an association made up of people from every walk of life, working side by side to strengthen the community.
Kit Kieser is the Director of Healthy Living at the Ann Arbor YMCA. She says that there are three areas of focus, called pillars, for the Ann Arbor YMCA. These are youth development, healthy living and social responsibility. Kit started in academia but more recently been working at various YMCAs around the country. She has worked at the Ann Arbor YMCA for a year.
Kit says that the YMCA’s programs will oftentimes improve people’s mood and improve social isolation in adult, youth and senior populations. She says, “We have a lot of programs that improve your overall mental health and well-being, but not through specific behavior change.”
She came across Mood Lifters through a referral and was intrigued by the product. Kit says: “Ann Arbor is a community that gets it. We understand that the mind is connected to the body and that there is a huge demand for emotional health programming. We have had our share of depression, anxiety and stress and, unfortunately, our share of suicide in our community. We want to address this issue head-on. It is a national issue with local implications.”
Therefore, Kit and two other directors from the YMCA went through Mood Lifters as consumers to learn about the program. Kit says: “We were very much a part of it, because we were looking at it through the lens of our profession, and through the lens of our organization. Each one of us found that we personally benefited from the program, even though we didn’t necessarily have an intent. Mental health is an area of healthy living that’s really important to me, and it’s something that the Y doesn’t address pointedly or very specifically. It does it as a by-product of the other programs that we provide.”
She goes on to say: “We saw Mood Lifters, and me specifically, I specifically looked at it through the lens of healthy living programs at the Y, whereas other directors are more on the youth development and social responsibility side. I saw it as being a program that sat very, very well with what we do at the Y, being that it’s a behavior change in a group setting. It speaks very well to us, in that we could identify it very easily as something that would work, because we’ve seen that model work before. We also had a demand among our members for this kind of programming. The Y is in over 10,000 communities in the United States. Mental Health is a pressing issue in many of those communities and most Ys don’t have the resources or behavior modification programs available to respond to that need.”
So Kit says: “I jumped at the idea of participating in it, and I jumped at the opportunity to bring it to our Y.”
She goes on to say that the evidence-based approach was critical to her. The fact that Mood Lifters had already completed a Randomized Control Trial made her decision easier. She says that most vendor organizations do not have this kind of evidence of efficacy. “At the Y, while a program isn’t required to be an evidence-based one, it adds a level of credibility and integrity both internally and externally.”
She says in terms of getting the Mood Lifters program approved: “I certainly had the support of our board of directors and the senior leadership of our organization. It also is because of the nature of our community, and the nature of our department, in that we have often been a Y that will pilot a program, particularly in the evidence-based health intervention programs. It was a natural fit for us. You can’t pick up a publication today and not hear about depression, anxiety, suicide, stress. So, we just did it.”
She says that it is important to try to move the issue of depression and anxiety to a happier place and away from the stigma of the clinical environment. She says: “Let’s get into a space that is already de-stigmatized.”
Kit says that other YMCAs around the country will experience the same demand as Ann Arbor. The test will be if they have the desire and resources to move on the issue. I don’t know that every YMCA would be able to offer a program like Mood Lifters, but I think that it is pretty starkly obvious to leaderships of YMCAs across the country that this is a problem in their communities.”
She loves the fact that Mood Lifters is a peer-led group session and that it offers a points system and structure to the 15-week program. She says: “We see this in other programs that we have at the Y. We don’t necessarily see the points system, but we see peer facilitated programs. I say facilitated because it’s not a class. You’re not sitting down to just receive information. You’re there to benefit from your own progress, your own work, and then the work of others. We have found, in our programs, in addition to Mood Lifters, that those people that participate in those programs will actually have more success if they come to decisions, if they come to realizations, if they come to behavior change on their own, and on their own terms, versus somebody telling them what to do. So, that is a real strength in this program. I think that the point system is great, because it’s a means of meeting you where you are. You develop your own goals and then you get a point for when you get to those goals. It gives you some incentive to do the work. In addition to that, it shows you a very specific visual. It’s helpful to see something come to fruition, because I can say I’m challenging negative thoughts, but if I don’t have some sort of actual, physical thing that marks that, I might not remember that it happened. I think that’s a really important piece, is that you’ve got something visual, you have something that you’re reaching for, and then you have a page of stickers that says, “Look at all the work that I did.”
She goes on to add: “The topics are great. They’re really simple concepts, but, for instance, you might not know that sleep has such an incredible impact on your mental health or your level of functioning as it relates to your stress level. It’s really good to bring some awareness to that. Even if it’s something that you knew coming into it, and going through that module, and thinking about it again, and bringing some intention to it, that’s very helpful. In addition to covering them, you’re revisiting them. 15 weeks is a long period of time, but it takes a long time for behavior change to happen. So, you’re coming back to it and you’re consistently going over, and over, and over. It’s also cumulative, so you’re doing points in multiple different areas, as you go through the program. As it accumulates, I think it’s helpful to bring that awareness and intentionality to the behavior change and to the practices that you’re putting into place in order to reach those goals.”
Kit thinks that there is a benefit to being in a group setting, where you’re not sitting around and talking about your problems. She says “You’re not sitting and ruminating on the problems that you have. Instead, you’re developing some tools to help you put one foot in front of the other, day after day. I think that for some people, that practice of focusing on the things that aren’t going well is actually hindering their ability to build those tools. Again, I’m a lay person. I can only speak from my personal experience, but what I see in members and clients, that this program is great because you’re not sitting around, talking about the negative things. You’re talking about, “Okay, how do we make this better?”
The Ann Arbor YMCA started with 2 groups. They offered the program to both members and non-members (at differing price points). One of the groups was over-subscribed (Thursday nights). Kit says: “Well, this is testament to the fact that the program is properly priced.”
She said that they used their standard promotional efforts to promote the Mood Lifters program which included email, flyers and even got some on-line publications to write about them and conducted an interview on the local NPR radio station. Kit says that the media exposure shows that the issue is critical.
The Ann Arbor YMCA plans to offer more Mood Lifters meeting in the future. Kit says that ideal group sizes are between 12 and 15. She says her only constraint is space to offer the sessions as rooms are at a premium at the YMCA.
Kit states that offering Mood Lifters was also great for the YMCA brand. “It shows that we care about the emotional health as well as the physical health of our community” adds Kit. She says that she has received positive comments from participants and staff alike about the program. Kit says: “Our organization—members, staff, leadership—is excited the Y is offering this program. Participants I’ve spoken with have say they enjoy it and are genuinely benefiting from the program.”
When asked what advice she has for other community-based organizations who might be thinking about offering Mood Lifters, Kit says: “Three things. Make sure you have the demand, get the buy-in from your organization management and recognize that there are multiple moving pieces to this. But it is clearly doable and clearly worth it.”