Thursday, September 25, 2008

Local group seeks understanding, support for people with mental illnesses

There sits in the national office of Mental Health America (MHA) a 300-pound bell. A bell likewise adorns its logo.

"It symbolizes ringing out hope," says Mary Steffy, Executive Director of the nonprofit's Lancaster County chapter.

Their small, inconspicuous office is part of the "Lancaster Community Center" complex at 630 Janet Ave. between New Holland Ave. and Lititz Pike.

"What's unique about MHA is that we're not just about specific mental illnesses... We are about promoting mental health, improving the lives of people with mental and emotional illnesses, and working to prevent those illnesses."

They seek to accomplish this in a variety of ways including community outreach, public education, prison outreach, holding support groups, and engaging in issue advocacy and lobbying.

Steffy is also on the advisory board for the mental health court Lancaster County is seeking to establish and she is fully supportive of the concept.

"Too many people in prisons have a mental illness and sometimes they get to be the de facto mental health hospitals," she said.

"They need to have treatment."

Support groups meet for anxiety disorders, depression in men, depression in women, postpartum depression, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, parents of children with mental or emotional disorders, and more.

Most of these support groups meet weekly and all are free for anyone.

They have also held more comprehensive sessions on things like anger management.

People find these groups in any of a number of ways, including walk-ins, referrals, and word of mouth.

She is careful to stress, however, that these groups are "non-clinical" and are not intended as a substitute for treatment. They are led by facilitators who are often recoverers of the given illness themselves or in some cases are social workers or psychology students.

Between July 2007 and June 2008, about 400 individuals attended one of these support groups.

On the political front, she is concerned recently with "parity legislation" - equalizing the ways insurers treat mental illnesses as opposed to physical illnesses.

She believes that is a false dichotomy and a lingering discrimination, since mental illnesses are accompanied by physical and chemical changes in the brain.

She said that local congressional representative Joseph Pitts voted against such legislation.

"It's incredible how much stigma and misunderstanding is still around about mental illnesses," she said.

Mental Health America of Lancaster County is a small organization with three full-time staff, four part-time staff and a board of 20 volunteers.

Their annual budget is roughly $406,515. 22% of their funding comes from the United Way, 30% from government grants, 20% from membership and fundraising drives, and 28% from other grants and contributions.

Their largest expenditure by far is on staff salaries and compensation.

Mental Health America of Lancaster County began as the "Mental Health Association of Lancaster County" in 1956 and later joined the national organization.

Mental Health America, the national organization, is about to celebrate its centennial anniversary. It was founded by Clifford Beers in 1909.

Steffy first became interested in mental health many years ago when her daughter had a seizure and from her experiences as a child visiting a relative in a mental hospital.

She is not a psychologist, but is clearly an effective administrator with a solid understanding of the subject. She joined Mental Health America of Lancaster County in 1981 and became its executive director in 1984.

More information about Mental Health America of Lancaster County is available on their website: