Westmoreland County mental health group celebrates 50 years of helping people


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Mental Health of America of Westmoreland County is celebrating its 50th anniversary this month.

Laurie Levine, executive director of the association, said the public's understanding of mental illness has come a long way in those 50 years.

But then again, it's got a long way to go, she added.

"We can't discriminate against illnesses of the brain, we need to treat them like we do illnesses of the body," she said.

"There should be no shame in mental illness. We don't tell people to 'Get over cancer.' "

The national Mental Health of America organization reports that 1 in 4 U.S. adults lives with a diagnosable and treatable form of mental illness, she said.

"Lots of people with mental health issues live in the community," she said. "We employ people here with these issues. Once they are on a course of medication and treatment, there is recovery.

"People can live rich and full lives with mental illness," she added. "Who has mental illness? It can be a friend, or your neighbor."

The Westmoreland County organization refers residents to services and advocates for those with mental health problems. It works closely with the county's Behavior Health and Developmental Services department.

The agency held a dinner last Thursday at the Ramada Inn in Greensburg to celebrate its anniversary.

The local advocacy group was created after President John F. Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Act in 1963, just before his assassination. It significantly altered the way mental health was treated in the United States. The legislation established community mental health centers throughout the country and led to the de-institutionalization of many people with mental illness.

Mental Health of America of Westmoreland County has an office in Greensburg, and a staff of 23 full-time and part-time employees. Most of its funding comes from the state administered through the county.

In addition to two advocates at Torrance State Hospital in Blairsville, it has one adult advocate and two parent and child advocates.

It also has a drop-in center in Latrobe, so people with mental illness can enjoy recreational opportunities.

But the group received a 10 percent cut in state funds the past two years, as did other human service programs, because of the recession and a shortfall in state revenues.

"Mental health services are chronically underfunded," Ms. Levine noted.

Have attitudes to those with mental illness improved significantly in its 50-year history?

"Yes and no," she said.

"The media has done a lot to improve the portrayal of some with mental illness," she said. "But all its attention on recent mass shooting by people with mental illness tends to be misleading.

"People with mental illness are no more likely to commit violent acts than those without mental illness, and in fact most often are victims themselves."

She said it has helped when celebrities such as Catherine Zeta-Jones publicly reveal they have mental health issues. The Oscar-winning actress -- married to actor Michael Douglas -- has bipolar disease, which formerly was called a manic-depressive condition, where a person experiences high and low mood swings.

"When you see someone who looks normal with mental health issues that helps change attitudes," Ms. Levine said.

She said the media has brought positive attention to mental health issues of returning war veterans, as well.

"With traumatic brain injuries and [post-traumatic stress disorder] common among veterans, it has helped by highlighting their plight and helped to educate the public on mental illness," she said.

"And suicide rates among veterans are very high," she said.

According to a recent Department of Veterans Affairs report, 22 veterans a day commit suicide.

"Mental health issues often surface with young people around the age of 20," Ms. Levine said. "The brain is still maturing. It's related to the chemistry of the brain, and chemical changes as the brain continues to form into the 20s."

Stress can trigger problems, and people also can have a predisposition to depression or other mental illness.

"It's a time when young people are leaving home and no one is eyeballing them as much, and their support system is not as good.

"Suicide is the third leading cause of death in young people," she said.

"Impulses are traced to the frontal lobe of the brain, and suicidal people are often impulsive, and that section of the brain is often not fully developed until adulthood," she said.

Drug or alcohol abuse is often involved with people who have mental health issues, she said.

"Research shows that substance abuse and depression often run in families," she said, "and addictive issues seem to run with mental health issues."

"Sometimes people with mental health issues are hesitant to seek treatment, and they will self-medicate with drugs or alcohol."

She noted Westmoreland County has started a drug overdose task force because accidental deaths from heroin and prescription drugs have risen, and so have suicide rates.

"Since 1980, 3.3 million people in the United States have died from addictions," she said. "In comparison, 600,000 have died from AIDS during that period."

According to the state Mental Health of America website, the No. 1 myth about mental illness is still that recovery is impossible.

"As the treatment of mental illness has advanced, the focus has shifted from simply minimizing symptoms to true recovery, to reintegration into mainstream society, including the world of work," it says.

Ms. Levine emphasizes the point.

"We have to understand that mental health is treatable," she said.

"Here, we like to say there is no health without mental health."

At its Oct. 24 dinner meeting, the Westmoreland agency honored the Fred Funari family with its lifetime achievement award. Funari was the founder of the local agency and a longtime board member. His children have remained active with the group, and daughter Josie Funari accepted the award.

Debra Duncan, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.

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