Promoting Mental Wellness in our Community: Mental Health America in Allen County

Statistically, it is highly probable that you know someone who has suffered from a mental illness. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experiences mental illness in a given year. That's about 43.8 million adults.

Does this surprise you? It sure surprised me when I first read that statistic. Mental illness is a lot more prevalent than many of us think. In fact, whether you know it or not, one of your friends or coworkers (maybe several of them) deal with a mental illness on a daily basis.

In the penultimate article of this non-profit series, I will be talking about Mental Health America in Allen County (MHAAC), located on Lake Avenue. This non-profit strives to help those with mental illness live better, more successful lives.

MHAAC's logo. Notice the bell?

MHAAC's logo. Notice the bell?

Unlike the other non-profits featured in this series, MHAAC is actually a branch of a national chain of Mental Health America (MHA) organizations. Mental Health America is an organization started in 1909 to battle the stigma and cruelty leveled against those with mental illnesses.

For a long time, when someone had a mental illness, rather than being treated with compassion and care in an appropriate manner, he or she was institutionalized, oftentimes for the rest of his or her life, depending on the severity of the mental illness. Families simply did not want to deal with relatives with mental illness, and it was socially acceptable at that time to admit someone into an institution and then leave them there until they died. Mental Health America played an integral part in setting in motion the deinstitutionalization of those with mental illnesses.

This process played a large part in Mental Health America's symbol, the bell. Handcuffs and shackles that were used to restrain patients in these institutions were melted down and reformed into the Mental Health America bell. Now the bell is taken to different MHA events and rung to signify what the organization stands for: helping the mentally ill.

Cast from shackles which bound them, this bell shall ring out hope for the mentally ill and victory over mental illness.
— Inscription on the Mental Health bell

Alright, enough about MHA, let's hear more about what MHAAC does in our local community to help the mentally ill. I spoke with Angie Helmsing, Community Advocate and Education Coordinator, about MHAAC. She told me that MHAAC wants to "educate about mental illness, promote good mental wellness, and help the community understand and fight against stigma." MHAAC celebrated its 60th anniversary last year.

The Mental Health America bell, cast from the handcuffs and shackles previously used to restrain the mentally ill.

The Mental Health America bell, cast from the handcuffs and shackles previously used to restrain the mentally ill.

MHAAC has a variety of programs in place to help members of our community. Also, they always have new programs in development, so it is clear they are dedicated to helping as many people with mental illness as they can. Their current list of programs include: client advocacy, Kids on the Block, Lunch and Learn, the guardianship program, and m8connections.

Client advocacy involves communicating with members of the community. This might take form in simply listening to what's happening in a person's life and referring him or her to different resources for help. It might also involve connecting people to appropriate services, either offered by MHAAC, or other local organizations.

Kids on the Block is a program aimed at third graders. Kids on the Block is a puppet show presented to third graders in the community that promotes mental wellness, understanding of differences, and acceptance. The puppet shows address a number of other topics as well, including bullying.

Lunch and Learn is a series of free presentations that happen every other month. It is meant to teach the community about many different mental health topics to raise awareness and education. The guardianship program appoints legal guardians to people who are unable to make their own sound medical decisions. Legal guardians then take on the responsibility of speaking with doctors and making medical decisions, keeping the well-being of the person they are helping in mind.

There is another guardianship program in development at MHAAC currently. It is called VASIA, and is based on similar programs around the nation. The VASIA program is similar to the current guardianship program, except the organization will be considered the legal guardian of those residing in assisted living homes who are unable to make sound medical decisions for themselves. Volunteers will act as messengers between the doctors and the organization, and when a major medical decision needs to be made, the organization will then be informed enough to make that decision. This allows freedom for volunteers so that they do not feel obligated to be a guardian for as long as the incapacitated person lives.

Finally, the m8connections Youth Group is geared towards providing teens with support outside of the typical support systems. The youth group, for ages 13-18, is geared towards teenagers struggling with mental health issues and life in general.

In addition to these great services, MHAAC also works to prevent suicide in Allen County. There are about 50 suicides per year in Allen County, and Angie told me, “In 2013, Indiana was highest in the nation for teens thinking about suicide, and second highest for teens actually attempting suicide.” Clearly suicide is an issue prevalent in our community.

One important way that MHAAC works to prevent suicide in Allen County is by participating in STOP Suicide Northeast Indiana“a bunch of agencies all meeting together to work on what we can do to improve our safety net in our community.” They are also developing a toolkit to distribute in hospitals and other agencies. These toolkits will be given to family members after a suicide attempt that will inform the family of what to expect and what they can do to prevent the same thing happening in the future.

Recently, MHAAC has also merged with another great organization in the community, Cedars Hope. Cedars Hope provides permanent supportive housing to women with mental illness. These women, due to the severity of their mental illnesses, would be homeless without Cedars Hope to help them. It is also a unique setup because typically, supportive housing like what Cedars Hope offers is only temporary, and anyone living there is expected to eventually move elsewhere. However, at Cedars Hope, the 15 women they can house are there to stay for as long as needed.

Overall, MHAAC is a wonderful organization that has the mental well-being and safety of our community in mind.

Check out their Facebook page!

If you're feeling overwhelmed and thinking about taking your own life, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Did you like this article? Read the other two in the series:

Part 1: Dare to Dream Youth Ranch

Part 2: The Literacy Alliance

All photos courtesy of Mental Health America in Allen County.