djr-2021-10-13-news-health-director-twp1

Emma James the new Health Allaince Director

TUPELO • The United Way of Northeast Mississippi is placing an increased focus on health and wellness with a new initiative.

Emma James, a Texas native with Mississippi roots, will lead the United Way's Health Alliance as its director. The Alliance’s initial focus is addiction and mental health, based on conversations around its eight counties.

“That was a really big, kind of glaring point, was everybody has a big need to fill this space in mental health and in addiction,” James said. “As with most things, COVID kind of pushed those even further.”

James started Oct. 4. She came into her role after being a physical therapist assistant in Columbus and Starkville for the last six-and-a-half years. With seeing a few of her own family members fall into addiction and recovery, she recognized it was something she found interesting and wanted to delve into.

James said she doesn't know a single family that hasn't been touched by some form of mental health struggle or addiction. 

“In some families and some parts of society, it’s taboo to say that I have mental health issues or that I have addiction issues," she said. "We have to educate the public in saying this is something that needs to be addressed.”

James' current plans are to get out in the community and meet people within the addiction and mental health communities and compile a comprehensive guide of resources.

The Health Alliance will become the third pillar of coalitions around their focus areas of academic success, family stability and health and wellness. These coalitions stem from a series of listening sessions United Way conducted around its region about five years ago, said Patti Parker, United Way of Northeast Mississippi president. 

“One of the largest number of calls we receive for assistance are people seeking these types of services,” Parker said. “Our Health Alliance is going to help us be an ear to the ground in sort of getting our arms around the services that are available.”

After developing the Hunger Coalition of Northeast Mississippi, Early Childhood Coalition and the Volunteer Hub, the Health Alliance will help increase United Way’s ability to learn, educate and participate more in community health issues and services, Parker said.

“We’re so excited to have Emma on board," Parker said. "She’s got a great capacity for research and she will become our resident expert on all things health and wellness-related in the area. We see her in a nurse-educator role, in a community health-educator role, as well, as we work to kind of convene all the players and stakeholders in this space and then communicate that back out to individuals who need these services.”

The Health Alliance is in the early stages of planning an addiction summit. It is in partnership with the CREATE Foundation and the Commission on the Future of Northeast MS. The summit will allow advocates develop ideas of how to fill in the gaps between the realms of mental health and addiction.

Because mental health issues and addiction can take so many forms, James believes fixing the problems that exist in both of them will require people working within those realms to share both their strengths and weaknesses. 

While James is still conducting research for the mental health aspect, some early areas James hopes to explore is seeing if mental health is something that needs to be addressed at a younger age to potentially prevent addiction, determining if there are any cost-related hindrances to seeking and receiving mental health assistance, and exploring the ways mental health can impact physical health and overall quality of life.

Parker hopes the alliance will look into other barriers to healthy lifestyles as it gets more established.

Park said she appreciates the community’s support for their coalitions and volunteer hub and the support that they’ll have for the health alliance going forward.

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