Social workers are especially cherished in rural communities as they are key to breaking down access barriers to health care. Licensed Clinical Social Worker Erica Collins is among this heralded group. She continues to be instrumental in taking a whole-person approach to meeting the needs of those she serves. For the last two years, she has touched many in this role at the Health Care Collaborative (HCC) of Rural Missouri and its Live Well Community Health Centers (Live Well). “We’re caring for the whole person: mind, body, spirit,” she said. “You are a whole being and we must treat the whole being.”

Collins said she has been a social worker her entire life. She recalls a second-grade classmate who didn’t always have school supplies – specifically, one of those Big Chief tablets. “I remember for months sharing paper and pencils with him,” she said. “When we came back from Christmas break, he gave me a brand new Big Chief tablet and two chubby pencils. He said, ‘my mom told me to give these to you and she said, thank you.’”

Collins grew up in Warrensburg, Mo. with a passion for reading inspired by her mother and an instantly recognizable empathy for others. Throughout grade school, she continued to share lunches and supplies with her less fortunate classmates and as she got older, found ways to help friends navigate unmet needs by connecting them to community resources.

After graduating from Parkville University, she became more involved in her community working for nonprofits and a residential rehabilitation center for people overcoming substance abuse. She also worked with homeless populations, as well as did work at Whiteman Airforce Base.

After receiving her master’s degree, Collins excitedly looked to HCC to pursue her clinical license, getting in on the ground level as they began building their behavioral health department. “There’s such great vision and insight at HCC and it has grown very rapidly; our services keep getting better and better. I love the adaptability of HCC to become what it needs to be to meet the needs of the people it serves.”

Since Collins began working there, the department has expanded from three social workers working in behavioral health, a child psychiatrist, and an adult psychiatrist. Now there is an additional social worker, psychologist, and psychiatric nurse practitioner. Services have also expanded; HCC’s behavioral health services are embedded in school districts and they now offer group therapy and medicated-assisted treatment.

Collins provides individual and group counseling but says being part of an integrated team is the best way to provide health care services, especially in the communities she serves. She describes HCC and Live Well as a one-stop shop with dentists, doctors, therapists, under one roof. This is especially crucial for rural communities as they face barriers in both access and social stigmas. In “care deserts,” individuals may have to travel long distances to access health care and if they lack reliable transportation, they may avoid seeking care altogether. While others may have physical access to care, rural stigmas about the need to be resilient or keep things private may prevent those struggling with mental health from reaching out for outside support and resources.

Health care providers at HCC and Live Well help normalize the idea of seeking mental health care. Collins said when people get toothaches or other ongoing physical ailments they go to the doctor. Providers at HCC help patients see that mental health is the same – not only is there no shame in treating mental illness, but it can also lead to greater health issues if left untreated. “We want to make HCC a place where people are comfortable coming and receiving services.”

Social workers like Collins are essential to the communities they serve as they help individuals see the whole picture of their health and treat it accordingly. By breaking down stigmas surrounding mental health, they provide individuals the support and encouragement to seek help and prevent further illness caused by untreated mental and emotional ailments.

“HCC is a one-stop shop,” she said. “When individuals come to behavioral health, we’re helping them see the whole picture. We understand that having depression or anxiety affects how someone sleeps, how they eat, it effects their A1C. Or that pain they’ve been feeling is a derivative of depression. One of the things I care most about HCC being a one-stop shop is that we are caring for the whole person – mind, body, spirit – and that’s a mantra I’ve had since I’ve become a social worker. We can’t separate those parts out. We are a whole being so we must treat the whole being.”This Social Work Month take time to learn more about social workers in your community and their contributions to breaking down health care barriers. Learn more about Social Work Month 2021 and celebrate social workers using the National Association of Social Workers’ toolkit. To learn more about HCC and Live Well and the services they provide, visit Listen to the full podcast interview with Erica Collins here.