Episode 5: University Of Maryland Extension Programs

Alexander Chan, Ph.D.is a Mental and Behavioral Health Specialist with the University of Maryland Extension. He joined Quinton Askew, president & CEO of 211 Maryland, to discuss available mental health and behavioral health resources. UME takes a holistic approach to well-being for youth and adults through its varied programming, that is available to all residents of Maryland.

Show Notes

Click on the show note section to jump to that part of the transcript.

1:10 About University of Maryland Extension Office

The University of Maryland Extension (UME) is a non-formal education system within the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. The programs focus on education and problem-solving assistance.

3:36 Relationship building

Some of the extension’s programming focuses on building stronger relationships, knowing the signs of abuse, and preventing dating violence. Alexander E. Chan, Ph.D., talks about some of the warning signs of a controlling partner and how relationships are changing due to COVID-19 social distancing and technology.

3:45 TOGETHER Program: Financial and Stress Management Series For Couples

The TOGETHER Program, is a free research project that offers couples relationship and financial education, a connection to community resources, and access to employment services. It’s a 6-week financial and relationship series. Participants learn stress and financial management skills. More than 800 couples have enrolled in the program.

7:20 Nutrition and mental health

UME focuses on holistic well-being, including the roles of nutrition and finances on mental health. What you feed yourself can affect your mood and how you feel.

8:25 UME Staff

UME staff have a number of backgrounds including mental health. They bridge the gap between research and practice.

9:22 Rural mental health

Mental health in rural communities is a need that UME is addressing with some of its programming. There are not enough providers in rural areas and there’s a stigma surrounding help. When a person waits, a mental health situation that could have been handled turns into an emergency situation. They’re looking at community professional development to get help to the people who need it before it becomes a crisis.

13:17 Mental health myths

There’s a stigma surrounding mental health in the farming communities, and also quite a few myths. Alexander Chan, Ph.D., says that if you talk about suicide with someone it will NOT put the idea in their head. He understands that it’s scary to talk with a depressed or suicidal person, but there’s more risk in staying silent. By asking a person directly, you can get them the help they need faster.

UME offers Mental Health First Aid training. It’s a program for anyone in the community who wants to support the mental health of others. No prior training or experience is required.

16:36 Partner organizations

UME partners with local health departments, school systems, and health care organizations. They’re open to partners, even non-traditional mental health providers like financial planners since there are so many emotions tied to money. With the community approach to mental health, a trained financial planner can help identify ways to improve a couple’s overall well-being.

19:55 Breathing Room blog

You can get practical tips on the UME blog, Breathing Room, including an article by Alexander Chan on coping with pandemic losses.

21:10 COVID-19 impact on mental health

COVID-19 is changing family dynamics. Alexander Chan suggests a “rebooting of family routines” so relationships can recover from being outside the routine.

23:29 UME provides statewide programs

Any organization can inquire about partnering with UME on one of its initiatives.

25:26 Find a way to unwind each day

With so many people working at home and helping their children with remote learning, it’s more important than ever to take time to unwind and detach for a little bit.

Relationship Building

Quinton Askew, CEO & president 211 Maryland  3:36

And you mentioned, you know, various programs that you’re working with there that could help support you know, in reference to dating and others. Could you talk a little bit more about what those programs are?

About University Of Maryland Extension Office

Morning. Welcome Dr. Chan.

Alexander E. Chan, Ph.D., Mental and Behavioral Health Specialist  1:08
Good morning. Good to be here.

Quinton Askew, CEO & president 211 Maryland  1:10
Thank you. I appreciate you coming on board. Could you tell us a little bit about what the University of Maryland Extension program is and what your role is there?

Alexander E. Chan, Ph.D., Mental and Behavioral Health Specialist  1:19
Yeah, so if you’re not familiar with the University of Maryland Extension. It is a statewide, non-formal educational program that brings the research and resources of the University of Maryland and the land grant system to the community. Out to the citizens of Maryland. So we have field educators based at offices in all 23 counties and Baltimore City. We provide programs in the areas of 4H Youth DevelopmentFamily and Consumer Sciences, Agriculture, and Environment and Energy. And so we do these programs across the state. And so I’m actually in the Family and Consumer Sciences program area as a Mental Behavioral Health Specialist.

Quinton Askew, CEO & president 211 Maryland  2:02
Perfect. And you also mentioned that it’s a part of the University of Maryland Extension, is this a part of the college? Or is this separate? Does someone have to be a student to sort of learn more about this initiative of programs?

Alexander E. Chan, Ph.D., Mental and Behavioral Health Specialist  2:14
Yeah, so we’re actually based in the College of Agriculture. Because of the history of extension being an educational program targeting farmers from over 100 years ago. But actually, you don’t have to be a student at the University to receive University round extension programming. So that’s actually the purpose of the extension is to go beyond campus and educate citizens out in the community.

Quinton Askew, CEO & president 211 Maryland  2:37
I know you mentioned a little bit about behavioral health. Could you help us with folks who are listening? Actually, what does that mean for someone who’s listening in behavioral health? And how does that really connect with them when they are trying to identify help?

Unknown Speaker  2:51
Yeah, so within the Family and Consumer Sciences Program at the University of Maryland extension, we like to take an overall wellness look at health. So we do a lot of programs in the area of nutrition, and finance, and physical activity. But we also view wellness as not complete without the mental and behavioral health component. So what are you dealing with in terms of your psychological needs? You know, are you taking care of your stress? And you know, are you managing relationships? So mental and behavioral health encompasses the things that go beyond just physical health?

Quinton Askew, CEO & president 211 Maryland  3:30
So so it’s more of a holistic view of the whole person?

Alexander E. Chan, Ph.D., Mental and Behavioral Health Specialist  3:35
That’s right.


Quinton Askew, CEO & president 211 Maryland  0:42
Welcome to “What’s the 211” where you will hear about organization services in your community. If you or anyone you know needs help finding resources dial 2-1-1. So today we have one of our special guests, Dr. Alexander Chan, a Mental and Behavioral Health Specialist with the University of Maryland Extension.


Alexander E. Chan, Ph.D., Mental and Behavioral Health Specialist  3:45
Yeah, so we do mention that part of my program offerings does involve LP relationships where it can sell in addition to the mental and behavioral health programming. We offer dating violence prevention programs for youth. And we also offer programs that target the relational health of couples. Actually, one of the programs that just got refunded through a federal grant was our TOGETHER Program, which is a couple financial education program that also addresses relationship dynamics within the couple. And so it’s a dual purpose, financial education, and a couple relationship enhancement. The two often go hand in hand. So that’s just one example.

Another example would be the relationship smarts program, which we’ve done a lot of work in Prince George’s County. With the relationship smarts program, doing youth relationship education in high schools. Teaching teenagers the value of stable relationships, how to build a healthy relationship, and how to look out for the warning signs of abusive relationships.

Quinton Askew, CEO & president 211 Maryland  4:54
And that’s a very important topic, especially for the times that we’re in now. Could you talk a little bit about what are some of those points to look at, especially with our youth and dating violence and prevention? What are the key indicators that folks should be looking for, youth to look for, when they are in a relationship? That may include, you know, sort of dating violence or other things that happen.

Alexander E. Chan, Ph.D., Mental and Behavioral Health Specialist  5:19
Yeah, sure. So one of the things to look out for in terms of dating violence prevention would be efforts to control the dating partner. So when you’re in a relationship, and the other person is telling you how to dress, who you can spend time with, who you’re allowed to talk to. These are things that may come up that, you know, maybe in isolation, they might not immediately be a red flag, but as they pile up, they paint a picture of somebody who is not respecting, you know, your agency as an individual, your ability to make your own decisions. And that’s one of the clearest warning signs of a relationship that’s headed towards an abusive area.

Quinton Askew, CEO & president 211 Maryland  6:06
And we’re in the times now of social media and other you know, apps and things that are going on. Are there any differences between, you know, relationships that are virtual? Now we’re in COVID, and folks are a little more distant. Do you see youth sort of identifying relationships differently virtually, and, you know, this may not be an abusive relationship because, you know, this is the one line. Does that come up very often?

Alexander E. Chan, Ph.D., Mental and Behavioral Health Specialist  6:32
Well, you know, it’s, there’s still the opportunity even virtually, for someone to attempt to coerce somebody into, you know, spending their time a certain way or cutting off certain people. And there’s definitely the opportunity for things like cyberbullying. So even though some relationships may be starting, or maybe you know, maintained online right now, with the COVID restrictions you still have to look out for your safety in that environment. And in realizing too, that online, it’s almost a little more difficult to get your message across in the way you want it to come across. Communication takes on a whole other level of challenges because you’re not face to face and able to read body language and things like that.

Nutrition And Mental Health

So yeah, it’s definitely different in the online environment.

Quinton Askew, CEO & president 211 Maryland  7:20
You also mentioned nutrition as being part of the programs and initiatives that you offer, how does nutrition play a role in mental behavioral health services?

Alexander E. Chan, Ph.D., Mental and Behavioral Health Specialist  7:30
Yeah, so there’s actually a lot of overlap between things like nutrition and financial wellness, and some of the traditional programs in the Family and Consumer Sciences realm, and mental health. You know, as I said, there’s, you know, a big relationship component when you’re in a relationship and discussing finances, and with nutrition, the way you take care of your body, and the way you feed yourself, can affect your mood. At one of our field educators out in Western Maryland. She covers the Garret and Allegheny in Washington County. She, she has a great presentation on food and mood and how certain foods are linked through the compounds that they have in them to your brain health. And so she has a great presentation there, you know, bridging the gap between how you feed your body and how your brain functions. And so there’s definitely links like that between mental and behavioral health and nutrition, food, and mood.

UME Staff

Quinton Askew, CEO & president 211 Maryland  8:25
I like that. In mentioning some of the other staff who particularly are the staff that provide a lot of these services? And can you tell me about their background and some of the experience?

Alexander E. Chan, Ph.D., Mental and Behavioral Health Specialist  8:35
Yeah, so across the University of Maryland Extension, our field faculty are the ones that do a lot of direct education. They’re in every county and Baltimore City in Maryland. And their background is pretty far-ranging. You know, within the Family and Consumer Sciences program we have a lot of people who have public health backgrounds, we have a lot of people who have nutrition backgrounds. We have people like myself with mental health backgrounds. And so everyone brings a certain level of expertise to the job. And we’re also educators. So we kind of bridge the gap between research and practice.

Quinton Askew, CEO & president 211 Maryland  9:16

Rural Mental Health

That’s great. Where have you seen the most need with personal extension services programs?

Alexander E. Chan, Ph.D., Mental and Behavioral Health Specialist  9:22
Well, there’s a lot of needs. I mean, I’ll just speak you know, within my area and Family and Consumer Sciences. A big issue right now, especially over the past six months with COVID, is in the area of rural mental health.

So you know, everyone’s mental health has taken a toll. The pandemic has taken a toll on everyone’s mental health over the past six months. And there are lots of news articles about lots of people talking on podcasts about it and, the fact of the matter for rural audiences is that there’s just less access to quality mental health care, or even if the quality is very high. There’s just not enough providers in rural areas. So that’s one of the big challenges.

Another challenge is that, you know, there’s still a stigma in terms of reaching out for mental health care. And so people wait, and they might wait so long that they’re not health issues turn into something that lands them in the emergency room. You know, maybe they’re having a panic attack, or maybe they are experiencing suicidal thoughts,. This would end them up in the emergency room where if they had just been able to get linked to appropriate mental health care earlier, they wouldn’t be in that type of emergency situation.

And so that that’s one of the biggest needs that I’ve observed. And it’s why taking a community approach to mental health, which is what we’re doing at the university is so vital. We’re offering programs that are targeting organizations, so not just individuals, but also people in the community who work with a variety of individuals.

For example, one of our upcoming programs is targeting rural health care providers, to enable them to have conversations about mental health issues that might come up particularly in a farming community. So we’re training folks through our mental health services, to be ready to have those conversations earlier with the people that they serve with the people that these other professionals are serving.

And so through having a greater support network in the community, the issues that individuals face might be caught, so that they can get referred and so that they can get the help they need. And so they don’t end up in the emergency room. So that’s one example being, you know, kind of professional development as a way to enhance the community’s capacity to address mental health.

Quinton Askew, CEO & president 211 Maryland  11:44
Has there been any sort of linkage? Or do you see mostly with a sort of generational, whether it’s a rural community or other urban communities where, you know, there may be, I guess, folks are more inclined to seek mental health services? Just because it’s sort of maybe culturally, you know, it’s more things are more I can take care of this, or it’s more done in the family?

Alexander E. Chan, Ph.D., Mental and Behavioral Health Specialist  12:04
Yeah. So that’s actually something that we’re talking about a lot in our upcoming series on farming communities and mental health. In that community, there’s definitely a can-do attitude, and an idea that everyone should be self-reliant. And that actually carries with it a lot of strength, you know, you get a lot of stuff done when you have that attitude. However, it also has another side to it, which is that you might wait longer than other people to seek help when you really need it. So that would be something regionally and perhaps generationally that affects people’s seeking mental health.

But also you see, in the younger generation, there was just a national poll done by the National 4Council and Harris, I believe. And what they found was that among young people, so 4H teenagers right now, they actually found that there’s still a broad perception of stigma against talking about mental health issues, even in our youngest members of society. And so I think that the stigma maybe fluctuates between generations, but it’s still there, even among young people today. So talking about it, and making it out in the open is definitely still work that needs to be done.

Mental Health Myths

Quinton Askew, CEO & president 211 Maryland  13:17
Yeah, it is definitely true. And so, you know, speaking of just sort of talking about it, are there common myths that are normally associated with mental health? And you mentioned some of the stigmas? Are there myths that folks think, you know, what the reality is compared to what it actually is?

Alexander E. Chan, Ph.D., Mental and Behavioral Health Specialist  13:33
Definitely. So one of the biggest myths that I’ve encountered in my years as a mental health professional, is that talking about something severe like suicide, will put the idea in somebody’s head. That’s one of the most common myths that I hear. There’s a lot of people out there trying to dispel that myth. But it’s still out there. It just feels so scary to talk with somebody who may be facing depression, about thoughts of suicide. It’s a scary area. And so people just stay silent because they don’t want to create that thought.

But the fact of the matter is when someone approaches a person who’s experiencing depression or depressive symptoms and asks that direct, kind of confident question, actually helps them think through it and, you know, perhaps get support faster. The thought is not going to be generated by asking that type of question. That’s probably already there. Or if it’s not, it’s not going to start because somebody who wanted to help asked the question.

So really, your best support is just to be there and try to ask direct questions. And that’s how you can support those people. And actually, one of the things that we offer through the University of Maryland Extension is Mental Health First Aid training. So I myself just got certified as an instructor. We have other educators who are certified as instructors, and that actually teaches you how to have those conversations. It’s not just about suicide, but about a variety of mental health issues. And it teaches you how to be, I guess not the weakest link. You know that if you recognize it, and that somebody else is having a mental health challenge, you can be the person that links them to the care that they need earlier, so that it doesn’t turn into something worse,

Quinton Askew, CEO & president 211 Maryland  15:18
So it is okay to talk about it and ensure that, you know, we allow folks to be comfortable with talking about how they feel.

Alexander E. Chan, Ph.D., Mental and Behavioral Health Specialist  15:25

Quinton Askew, CEO & president 211 Maryland  15:26
Yeah. And so eventually, so Mental Health First Aid training is that for anyone? So can anyone take that who doesn’t have a mental health or behavioral health background?

Alexander E. Chan, Ph.D., Mental and Behavioral Health Specialist  15:35
Yeah, it’s totally for everybody. The goal is actually to teach more people who are not mental health experts about this idea. So if you’re trained as a mental health expert, you get those types of principles as part of your training. But for everyone else, you know, you may have a natural talent for talking to people, you may have a natural, you know, sensitive, caring nature, but it’s still may be hard to figure out what exactly to say or when you should start, you know, pushing them towards greater care or more intensive services. And so the absolutely you want to, you want to sign up for Mental Health First Aid training if you’re, you know, out there and having questions about supporting others mental health, and you don’t need any prior, you know, specialized education or training. There’s even a version out there that targets peer to peer at the team level. So you can even be as young as you know, 16 years old, and be getting this type of training.

Quinton Askew, CEO & president 211 Maryland  16:31

Partner Organizations

Sounds like a great resource. So what are some organizations that you already partner with?

Alexander E. Chan, Ph.D., Mental and Behavioral Health Specialist  16:36
Yeah, so we have partnered with a variety of organizations throughout the state. So one of our partners, common partners throughout the state, is our local health departments. So we have been invited by state and local health departments to present on mental health issues this year, especially with the COVID pandemic.

We have also partnered with school systems to offer the relationship education and dating violence prevention type of programs that I mentioned. That’s been a big success in school systems, especially in Prince George’s County.

We have partnered with other health care type of organizations, as I mentioned too. You know, bring greater mental health literacy to the people who work in health care, not just doctors, but all support people within healthcare.

So those are just a few examples of the type of organizations that we have partnered with, but we’re very much open to partnerships with a variety of organizations, community groups, you know, faith-based organizations, anybody really who sees a need in their community for mental health services, at the educational level, can request services from us.

Quinton Askew, CEO & president 211 Maryland  17:46
So it sounds like really any organization that works with youth or adults should really be connecting with you.

Alexander E. Chan, Ph.D., Mental and Behavioral Health Specialist  17:52
Yeah, if you think that you’re encountering mental health issues in your work. Think about the example that I gave earlier of a financial planner. You may be at a bank in town and your office is in charge of, you know, estate planning or other. You know, in the farming community, maybe like succession planning for who is going to take over the farm. These are economic, financial issues. But there’s a lot of emotional things that go on with those types of conversations. And so just having that basic level of mental health literacy and being able to identify, mmm, maybe you know, the issues that I’m encountering, in my financial work with this family, maybe it would be good for them to also seek consultation with a family therapist. So, that they’re improving their communication as I teach them these financial skills. So that’s, you know, that’s just one example of an area that you might not think about mental health overlapping with how it actually might have a real impact there. You can imagine all the emotions that come along with talking about money.

Quinton Askew, CEO & president 211 Maryland  18:56
Yeah, sure. Previously these presentations were done in person, but I’m assuming you’re still able to provide these services virtually to groups,

Alexander E. Chan, Ph.D., Mental and Behavioral Health Specialist  19:07
Definitely, we can provide Virtual Education through online platforms. And we are following you know, all the guidelines associated with you know, slowly reopening. For now, though, the University of Maryland Extension programs are pretty much virtual, but in a sense, that, that allows us to be in more places at once. And then we definitely work on, you know, making sure that there’s accessibility. For those who need any kind of accommodations. So really, if you have a need for a program, don’t hesitate to contact us. We want to serve anyone.

Quinton Askew, CEO & president 211 Maryland  19:46
Great. And so for someone just having an interest in wanting to connect, what’s the best way to normally be able to connect for more information?

Breathing Room Blog

Alexander E. Chan, Ph.D., Mental and Behavioral Health Specialist  19:55
Yeah, so we do have a blog called Breathing Room. So that’s one place where just this year, we’re now starting to include more and more mental health type issues on the blog. So that’s one way that people can get more information about that.

For now, you know, our written materials are at the College of Agriculture’s website. That covers the University of Maryland Extension. We also have the blog, Breathing Room. And there are you can follow the College of Agriculture and the University of Maryland Extension on Facebook. And we also do have Twitter. So there’s a variety of ways to follow and keep up to date.

Quinton Askew, CEO & president 211 Maryland  20:56

COVID-19 Impact On Mental Health

Perfect. How has COVID, as we’ve been hearing many stories about the impact, you know, financially of COVID. How have you seen or understood that COVID is affected, more mental behavioral health of individuals?

Alexander E. Chan, Ph.D., Mental and Behavioral Health Specialist  21:10
Yeah, so in terms of the isolation aspect early on, there was definitely you know, an increase in anxiety, both from the overall fear surrounding COVID, but also from a lot of people being stuck at home, increasing their anxiety. Just from not being able to engage in their typical routines. With that, there’s also been impact on family relationships.

So one of the trainings that I’ve been offering recently, targets, the kind of rebooting of family routines, so that the relationships that people enjoy in the family and with their, their partners can kind of recover from a being outside of the routine. You think about it, when you’re coming and going outside of the house, there’s greetings and goodbyes and those carry with them certain, you know, little bits of affection. Whether it’s physical or verbal, and when you’re not leaving or going anywhere, you’re not saying those things. And in the absence of those little affection, moments of affection and reminders, you know, that your, your child or your partner, whoever you live with cares about you. Those eventually add up to where you’re feeling an absence of what used to be there in terms of the relationship. And so that’s I saw that pretty early on. And so I developed training and kind of help folks rethink. If we’re still working at home, you know, even six months later, you know, how are we going to make sure that we can reclaim some of that closeness in that routine that supported our relationships?

Quinton Askew, CEO & president 211 Maryland  22:42
And it seems so basic. Just many of the things that we forget, and I think, especially for those parents, who are, you know, home now working with the kids and sort of trying to home school, and, you know work from home. I’m sure that that brings major, you know, stress and anxiety.

Alexander E. Chan, Ph.D., Mental and Behavioral Health Specialist  22:59
Yeah. So I also have a second version of that routines presentation that’s targeted towards supporting children in their routines. Actually, a routine is really helpful during times of crisis. So that’s kind of another angle that I’m taking, you know, this year with the pandemic response.

UME Provides Statewide Programs

Quinton Askew, CEO & president 211 Maryland  23:19
That is definitely information that’s needed. Are there any particular you know, organizations that  if you have an interest in really connecting with it, there may have been a connection in the past?

Alexander E. Chan, Ph.D., Mental and Behavioral Health Specialist  23:29
Well, I did say that we have partnered with a lot of health departments and schools. There are 23 counties and Baltimore City. So we’re not, you know, I haven’t met everyone in all those jurisdictions. In terms of the schools and health departments and organizations that have an audience, that is relevant. And so that those two types of organizations would be great partners with us, any nonprofit who has any kind of human service mission would be a great partner for us. We don’t charge for most of our services, or if we do, it’s very minimal. And so our goal is to bring the research the resources, our area of expertise, out to the community and in digestible ways. So we really just want you as broad a reach as possible.

Quinton Askew, CEO & president 211 Maryland  24:16
Yeah. And it is statewide, just to you know, so folks know, this is a statewide tour.

Alexander E. Chan, Ph.D., Mental and Behavioral Health Specialist  24:20
So if you if you feel that you are, you know, in an area that’s typically forgotten or underserved, don’t hesitate and reach out and demand services, because we will be there.

Quinton Askew, CEO & president 211 Maryland  24:32
Yeah. And also, you know, income should not be an issue, you know, especially in our folks without income or minimum income or low income, you know, this is a service that can help support them.

Alexander E. Chan, Ph.D., Mental and Behavioral Health Specialist  24:41
Yeah, definitely. Our services, besides mental health, the Family and Consumer Sciences program does offer a variety of financial education type of workshops. So if you’re looking for ways to manage money and deal with things like health insurance. We have a whole initiative related to that. And so we’re here to support your overall wellness from what you put in your body to how you take care of yourself financially to your mental health and the mental health of those around you

Quinton Askew, CEO & president 211 Maryland  25:14
It is definitely great news. We’re winding up. Is there anything that you would like to leave the audience with to keep in mind and be aware of, as they sort of go through their day to day lives?

Find A Way To Unwind Each Day

Alexander E. Chan, Ph.D., Mental and Behavioral Health Specialist  25:26
Yeah, I would make sure that you take time every day to detach in some way. That’s one of the things that the research is showing that with the increase among a lot of people in working from home, that there’s a blurred distinction between relaxation and work time. And so you really need to take special care right now, especially if your work-from-home plans are extending into the new year to make sure that you have a daily detachment of some kind. Without that, the stress accumulates and it becomes harder to really unwind. So finding a small consistent routine every day to detach in and just not worry about stuff for a few moments. That would be my biggest tip right now.

Quinton Askew, CEO & president 211 Maryland  26:15
Yeah, which is something definitely I needed to hear because you know, you’re home and you tend to work longer because you’re in a space that you’re comfortable with. Appreciate that. And so again, want to thank you for coming on Dr. Chan, Mental and Behavioral Health Specialist with the University of Maryland Extension. We appreciate you taking your time and thank you for joining us today.

Alexander E. Chan, Ph.D., Mental and Behavioral Health Specialist  26:39
Thanks for having me. Glad to share about what we do. Thank you.

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