Catalyst for Change

The Lutheran Foundation invests in mental health.
Jennifer L. Boen
Jeffrey Crane

Marcia Haaff, chief executive officer of The Lutheran Foundation (TLF), had one of those “ah-ha” moments when meeting with community stakeholders to discuss the foundation’s new focus on mental and behavioral health and wellness. Haaff had a sparkly purple cast on her left hand. 

“Everyone asked me what happened.” She recounted the fall that broke three fingers. “People could see the cast and know there was something wrong. They felt sorry for me. Then I thought, ‘Mental illness isn’t like that.’ ” The stigma, lack of education and barriers to care result in delayed, sometimes no, treatment. The visual was a perfect segue for starting a conversation on “how we have to care and be compassionate for people who have brain diseases that we can’t see.”

Since its founding in 1995, TLF has invested more than $157 million in promoting, improving and enhancing quality of life for individuals, families and communities in 10 northeast Indiana counties. Though foundation funding for addressing whole-person health – physical, mental and spiritual – has enabled many successful outcomes, Haaff and TLF board wondered if more could be done to address root causes.

“I felt like we were sprinkling money in many areas, but we’d never really done the deep dive,” Haaff says. We asked, ‘How can we be more impactful?’ ” They drilled down to the details, looking at where funding from all area foundations and charitable entities was going. A pivotal fact bubbled up: Less than one percent of funding was going to mental and behavioral health. 

Haaff was aware of national mental health data: one in five adults in any given year experience a mental health condition such as depression or anxiety; one in 25 adults in any year is diagnosed with a mental illness such as bipolar disorder or major depression that limits life activities, according to the National Institute of Mental Health; suicide is the tenth leading cause of death overall in this country and the second leading cause for people ages 15 to 24.

To clarify local mental health needs and gaps in services, TLF in 2013 commissioned Praxis Strategies and Solutions to complete a mental and behavioral health needs assessment for the 10 counties. The findings are driving the foundation’s redefined focus within its Building a Healthier Community grants category. Funding is now targeting initiatives and services that do the following: reduce stigma and promote community awareness and understanding of mental health conditions; foster early screening, diagnosis and treatment; and support strength-based strategies for children, youth and other vulnerable individuals.

Implementing the Vision

Kristina Johnson was hired in 2015 as director of community initiatives. Her footprint is already evident in creating new pathways that are moving forward community impact in mental health. She was instrumental in the formation of the Regional Mental Health Coalition of Northeast Indiana, an advocacy body addressing policy and structural issues in mental and behavioral health. In collaboration with Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry, more than 80 leaders from government, health care, the judicial system, schools, human services agencies, faith-based and business sectors held the coalition’s inaugural meeting in March 2016. 

A 25-member Leadership Council from the varied sectors meets periodically and, via an online management tool, is effecting policy and system changes and facilitating collaboration and coordination of mental health initiatives. 

Though the needs assessment identified many existing services for mental health and addiction, “They are not well-connected,” Johnson says. “Even the most well-meaning individuals or organizations can find themselves operating in a silo, not communicating well with others to ensure the best care for people.” Case in point, in several counties where substance abuse was identified as a major concern, survey informants said despite considerable marketing of general prevention and recovery information, few knew where to get local help for addictions. 

“The coalition is focused on breaking down this silo effect, promoting collaboration and communication,” Johnson adds, noting with 50 percent of lifetime mental illness cases having onset by age 14, and delay in treatment averaging eight to 10 years following onset of symptoms, “We need to break down the barriers that are preventing people from receiving the mental health care they need.”

Look Up

In 2016, TLF launched Look Up (, an online resource connecting people to mental health providers, crisis centers, and other services 24/7. Look Up offers a blog, events calendar, toll-free phone number and text-to-chat option. It also offers stigma-reducing videos to “put a different face on mental health conditions,” Johnson says. People can relate to visuals and messages from the cheerleader, the businessman, the pastor and others living with depression or other mental health conditions. Look Up also offers a student page, connecting youth to information and resources. 

“Look Up’s text-to-chat option is popular, especially with youth,” Johnson says, pointing out a recent CDC youth risk behavior study showed Indiana is tied for third-place in number of youth seriously considering suicide and tied for second place in youth reporting a suicide plan. “I believe our text-to-chat option saves lives.”

Currently available in TLF’s 10-county service area, Look Up is anticipated to go statewide this year.

Mental Health and the Church

TLF is rooted in demonstrating the compassion of Christ, and Dennis Goff, newly hired director of ministry programs, is helping equip pastors and the church as a whole with mental health knowledge and resources. A conference for clergy and faith-based lay leaders is planned for November to raise awareness of mental health conditions and prevalence and to provide a resource tool kit for faith leaders.

“This is a brain illness, not a spiritual defect,” Goff points out, noting churches readily respond with food and other help when someone has cancer or a new baby. But mental illness too often elicits a different response. Even the church is unsure how to help. “It’s the non-casserole illness,” he says, quoting Amy Simpson, author of the book Troubled Minds. Simpson is a keynote speaker for the fall conference. Goff says the goal of the conference is to be a catalyst for change and action within churches. 

Haaff concurs, saying of the foundation, “We’re a catalyst for change. We’re a convener.” Impact of the redefined focus is already evident, with greater impact still to come. 

Did you know?

Health care costs related to mental disorders are projected to be the largest cost driver for global health care expenditures, with estimated costs of $6 trillion by 2030, according to the World Economic Forum.

U.S. financial costs of mental disorders, including health care, lost wages and disability insurance payments, exceeded $467 billion in 2012, the most recent year data is available from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Eighty percent of Indiana employers report having observed prescription drug misuse by employees, according to a survey by the Indiana Attorney General’s office.

Speak Up Conference

What: One-day conference on mental health
and the church for clergy and other faith community leaders
When: Nov. 8
Where: Visit

The Lutheran Foundation

Address: 3024 Fairfield Ave. Fort Wayne, Indiana 46807

Phone: (260) 458-2112



Years in Business: 12

Number of Employees: 10

Products & Services: Partnering with the Lutheran Community Grants for Lutheran churches, schools and ministry organizations; Building Healthier Communities Grants to support mental and behavioral health initiatives and services; and Health Scholarships for students pursuing health care professions.

HRC - Full Team

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