How Community Partnerships Are Creating Lasting Change in Mental Health Care

By Sarenka Smith

The National Alliance for Eating Disorders highlights the ways community partnerships impact mental health care.

While stories of mental health recovery often focus on the individual and their growth, it is critical to recognize the role that a larger community plays in the journey. Recovery does not occur in a vacuum; rather, the concepts of partnership, connection and community are essential to the treatment and healing process.

Community partnerships definition

Engaged community partnerships are supportive relationships between programs, organizations and other community agencies – and clients and professionals – that seek to increase access to care, promote education and positively impact overall behavioral health.

Value of community partnerships

To better understand the value that community partnerships play in long-term recovery, we spoke with mental health clinicians Rachel Rifkin, LMHC, MA, EdM, and Allyson Emig, LCSW, from the National Alliance for Eating Disorders (The Alliance) to discuss the ways in which nonprofit partnerships are increasing awareness of eating disorders and facilitating access to mental health resources within local communities.

The overarching mission of The Alliance is to provide free access to care through recovery-focused, clinician-led programs, and educational training for communities and healthcare providers on early intervention initiatives. The Alliance’s comprehensive services include:

  • Support and referrals through a free, therapist-staffed helpline and comprehensive referral website/app,
  • Free, weekly, therapist-led support groups nationwide (virtual and in-person) for those experiencing eating disorders and for their loved ones
  • Free trainings for community organizations (schools, hospitals, social service agencies – not solely clinicians) about the stigma and shame that often surround eating disorders
  • Outreach and education programs, including monthly educational virtual training days at a very low cost for professionals (including continuing education credits)
  • Defining and raising awareness around intuitive eating, body image and self-esteem

Impact of community partnerships

The feedback has been consistently positive, even in terms of quantitative, measurable outcomes. Preliminary research conducted by The Alliance on their support groups found that:

  • Participants who attend eating disorder support groups experience fewer eating disorder symptoms. 
  • In virtual settings, verbal engagement and use of Zoom’s chat features are positively associated with increased psychosocial support, feelings of social companionship and informational support.
  • Attending support groups for one month was correlated with reduced anxiety, increased body satisfaction and image, and a more positive relationship with the community.

When asked why they are seeing these positive results, both Emig and Rifkin agree: “You see a sense of belonging in a space where people often have nowhere to go.”

Emig and Rifkin emphasize that the primary focus of The Alliance’s work is to facilitate early intervention. Rifkin remarks, “Our biggest goal is to help with intervention and prevention. Access to immediate care can help prevent the manifestation of a more severe eating disorder, or any type of eating disorder.”

Emig also mentions partnerships with other nonprofit organizations that go beyond the scope of eating disorders to ensure all angles of mental health are discussed, including the challenges that underserved and marginalized communities face. Given that all support groups are completely free, ongoing and clinician-led — and accessible through virtual platforms -- there is built-in support with clinical oversight that typically provides “a very different feel than other community resources.” Rifkin notes that “our groups will never cost a dime.”

Increasing support for marginalized communities

Rifkin and Emig continue to reinforce new ways to open up more groups for marginalized groups and individuals that both deserve and need their own spaces.

With six current virtual support groups (and plans for expansion) and various in-person groups, Rifkin notes that The Alliance’s LGBTQ+ group is solely led by queer-identifying clinicians. With other specialized groups, The Alliance is focused on having leaders that have lived experience.

The toll-free referral helpline is also clinician-led; if the Alliance does not have a specific resource, they do “a lot of digging on the back end” to identify other community resources with which to connect.

Yet there are inevitable challenges and barriers in building community partnerships, including accessibility for those who are underinsured or part of a marginalized community that lacks equitable access. Other barriers include different treatment philosophies, which The Alliance addresses by keeping conversations open, authentic and honest. The organization works to bring in different treatment centers that offer and utilize different modalities and psychotherapies.

“There isn’t just one right way to recover,” Emig states. “There isn’t just one right way to treat an eating disorder, and so we want to keep professionals eager to learn and continue to grow.”

Increasing financial support for providers and patients

For educational training days, The Alliance scholarships assist professionals who are unable to pay the cost. The Alliance is always trying to “meet folks halfway.”

A psychological services program in the South Florida area (the location of The Alliance headquarters) provides extremely low-cost care for uninsured or underinsured people, sometimes for as low as $5.

In addition to specific eating disorder treatment, clinicians partner with other community treatment providers to provide wraparound psychosocial supports that address other social determinants of health such as finding a job, locating affordable housing and more.

The future of community partnerships

The positive impact of The Alliance’s work to build community partnerships is clear. Some particularly moving testimonials involve individuals who have engaged with community resources – including free support groups – and recognized that they may need treatment, are not alone and deserve care.

Many often seek out higher levels of care and then return to support groups to continue their recovery journey with a supportive community. Both clinicians recall one man who still regularly attends their groups. While he was initially quiet, reserved and withholding, he now openly shares his experience, strength and hope – highlighting the direct impact these resources are having on people’s recovery journeys every day.

Emig and Rifkin agree that the future of nonprofit and community partnerships involves more work, but an incredible amount of potential. “What excites us most is the increased opportunities and collaborations that will allow more practitioners to be properly trained in assessing, referring and treating eating disorders,” shares Rifkin. “We're excited to continue partnering with other nonprofit organizations and community agencies to work together in creating more effective change and access to care while reducing stigma around eating disorders and mental health.”

On June 2, the National Alliance for Eating Disorders and The Mental Health Coalition hosted the first-ever briefing on eating disorders at the United Nations in honor of World Eating Disorders Action Day 2023. The conversation focused on the stigmas associated with mental health conditions and eating disorders; the complex effects of social media; and issues surrounding barriers to care. Over 29 million Americans will experience an eating disorder in their lifetime, and 70 million worldwide.

Rifkin remarks, “Having moments like this to see how far we’ve come as a community, while also seeing where we want to keep going, is so incredible.”

Taking place on Wednesday, August 23 at the 2023 Pathlight Conference on Mental Health from 3:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. MT, the session “Building Community: Partnering With Nonprofit Organizations to Support Lasting Recovery” will be led by Allyson Emig, LCSW and Rachel Rifkin, LMHC, MA, EdM, focusing on the critical importance of community partnerships. REGISTER HERE. Representing the National Alliance for Eating Disorders – the leading national nonprofit organization providing referrals, education and support for all individuals experiencing eating disorders and their loved ones – this session is designed to provide participants with beneficial resources beyond treatment. This new conference addition will deliver valuable content for organizations focused on enhancing the way we approach, treat and discuss mental health.

National Alliance for Eating Disorders Team

Allyson Emig, LCSW As a clinician with lived eating disorder experience, Allyson Emig, LCSW (she/her) is dedicated to the education, early detection, intervention and prevention of eating disorders. She has been involved with The Alliance since 2018 and serves as an education specialist in addition to a co-facilitator for their complementary, clinician-led virtual support groups.

Rachel Rifkin, LMHC (she/her) is a licensed mental health counselor, specializing in eating disorders within the LGBTQ+ community. As a queer clinician with lived eating disorder experience, she is passionate about increasing access to care and reducing stigma surrounding mental health. Rachel has been involved with The Alliance since 2013, currently serving as their support group manager.

At Eating Recovery Center and Pathlight Mood & Anxiety Center, we’re dedicated to making your experience - and your clients’ - with us as streamlined, helpful and accessible as possible by connecting and sharing resources for eating, mood, anxiety and trauma-related conditions.

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Written by

Sarenka Smith

Sarenka has been voraciously reading & writing since she was a small child. For the past half decade, she has worked in marketing & communications for healthcare-focused organizations and…