Local anti-stigma campaign raises awareness about successfully coping with mental illness

Patrick Arena, retired jazz singer, has dealt with depression for as long as he can remember. He manages a three-quarter house for recovering addicts and works at Greenbriar Treatment Center. Arena will celebrate 29 years of sobriety Sept. 1. His story is on Page B1.

Lynne Loresch, former executive director of the Mental Health Association of Washington County, is encouraged by the progress mental health organizations have made to combat the stigma that surrounds mental illness.

But, she acknowledges, much work remains.

MHA, a nonprofit dedicated to improving mental wellness, is launching an initiative this month to end mental health stigma.

The campaign, “Spotlight Success, Shatter Stigma,” shares the candid accounts of community members who have successfully battled mental health conditions.

Among them are Patrick Arena, director of The Murphy House in Washington; Diana McKinney, program director at AMI Inc., and Lori Reynolds, a trainer at Community Action Southwest. About 43.8 million adults grapple with a mental illness. But nearly 60 percent of adults with a mental illness didn't receive mental health services last year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Stigma is one of the most challenging aspects of living with a mental health condition, and can cause people to feel ashamed and discourage many from seeking treatment or support for what can be a manageable and treatable illness.

But, says Loresch, many people who suffer from mental illness live productive lives and make positive contributions to society.

“I think it's time for people to understand that you just don't survive mental illness, you can thrive with mental illness,” said Loresch. “We have accomplished artists, musicians, nurses, businessmen, executive directors of agencies who have dealt with mental illness, and they hold positions of value to the community, and we really wanted to spotlight these successes because it's important for people to know that mental illness is not a fatal diagnosis.”

Loresch wants people who experience mental illness to be able to receive the same support from friends, family and employers as those who are dealing with a physical ailment or a broken bone.

“The stigma attached to mental illness is still a major barrier. It's becoming less and less – I really believe that – but it remains a barrier,” said Loresch.

The anti-stigma campaign received a $25,000 grant from Staunton Farm Foundation, an organization dedicated to improving the lives of people who live with mental illness and/or substance use disorders. Eight local agencies also partnered to contribute a $5,500 matching grant. The groups were AMI Inc. of Washington County, Arc of Washington County, Centerville Clinics, Southwestern Pennsylvania Human Services, Transitional Employment Consultants (TEC), Washington Communities, Wesley Spectrum and the MHA,

“Spotlight Success, Shatter Stigma” will consist of monthly newspaper articles, along with radio spots in October during Mental Illness Awareness Month, and in May, Mental Health Month.

“With the proper support, mental illness can be overcome,” said Loresch. “People tend not to talk about their mental illnesses, but they go on and do wonderful things. And we want to highlight their successes.”

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