Todd Willis began working in the mental health industry to treat the problems most of us are still unwilling to talk about. As Director of Wellness and Education at Porter-Starke Services, it is his job to get out into the community and teach us people do not have to live with anxiety, addiction, and other mental illnesses.
“I’m just a guy,” says Todd. “I am not special, I don’t work any harder than anyone else. I am blessed with a support system, a church that feeds me, and am lucky to do what I do.”
Modest words, for a man who works to give people their lives back to them.
Todd has been a counselor at Porter-Starke for 16 years. His patients range in age from toddlers to the elderly. Some of them come for temporary treatment during a rough patch. Others suffer from serious mental illnesses they will have their whole lives.
Todd sites stigma as the reason for people not being active in seeking treatment for mental illnesses. Some worry they will be judged by their peers if they’re seen seeking help. Porter-Starke has spent years trying to break this cycle.
“The reality is these people are our neighbors, our family, our friends. But no one talks about that,” said Willis.
It is Todd’s job to get people talking about it. He gives regular seminars to organizations in the community, covering topics like social media, drug abuse, and suicide. Head Start uses his consultations and he offers play therapy to toddlers with behavioral problems.
Todd’s focus is on wellness.
“Most people think if you have mental health problems you should get medicine. And medicine is great, but nutrition is huge. People don’t realize the impact it can have. Exercise and nutrition are vital,” explained Willis.
At Porter-Starke, medicine is just a piece. Counseling sessions cover all the bases, including sleep and social activity. Every Friday, they have a 3-mile hike for patients and staff. Todd says even severe mental illness responds to nutrition and exercise and Porter-Starke is open to discussing any other holistic approaches their patients want to take with their treatment.
“Some folks want to do herbal supplements,” said Willis. “There isn’t a lot of study behind that, but we don’t want to dissuade people from trying to get better.”
Many patients only need medication temporarily. Todd recommends taking as low a dose as possible to avoid side effects and help prevent addiction.
Drug addiction is one of the biggest problems in the county. People see recreational drug use as a less committal way to cope with their problems, whether it is stress, psychosis, or boredom. They start with gateway drugs like marijuana and move up when the potency is not enough for them anymore.
Two of the programs Todd gets involved with in his free time are the Starke County Community Corrections Board and the Evidence Based Decision Making Program, both of which are a part of the criminal justice system. It is part of the county’s initiative to work together to fight the drug problem instead of blaming other departments.
“Everybody has a story. We are all people. Some made bad choices, some were in circumstances where that was their only choice. What, are we going to turn those people away?,” asked Willis.
Everyone deserves help.
That is not a company byline for Todd, it is something he truly believes in. He has been through his own struggles with depression and anxiety, especially when he attended college. In high school he was the go-to shoulder to cry on. It inspired him to earn a Master’s Degree in counseling, and become a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, and a Licensed Clinical Addiction Counselor. Todd understands what people are going through and that more than anything, they do not want to go through it alone.
“My family has been vital over the years,” Todd says. “They’ve been a stabilizer for me, a grounding. When you’re around people who are struggling all day, a strong family is important.”
Todd and his wife both went to Portage High School then Missouri for college. He attended the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary and Missouri State University.
Burrell Behavioural Health was Todd’s first industry place of employment. They hire college students who need the experience for their resumes.
Next he was employed at an adolescent home, where he worked with kids who would prepare him for the rest of his career. It was a life-changing experience. The kids lived at the home and attended school during the day, wrestling with their demons all the way.
Juvenile delinquency is an issue that is still a part of Todd’s life. He sits on the Advisory Council for the Porter County Juvenile Drug Court, which rehabilitates children instead of punishing them.
Todd’s private passions and core belief system are what make him a perfect fit for Porter-Starke.
“I buy into their mission and what they’re telling me to do. They are so all in in my community and help people with substance abuse and mental illness. They’re telling me these are people too. They care about people and want them to get better. That is what I want because I’m not going anywhere. I live here. I wanted to come home because this is my community, I grew up here. I want to make it better. I will be doing this when I’m 80,” said Willis.
Todd is on the Porter County Substance Free Committee, a vice chair for the Porter County Tobacco Prevention and Education Coalition, works with the DCS, and is part of the Smoke Free Portage and Empower Porter County groups.
“We are big believers at Porter-Starke, and I’m a personal believer, that you have to be out in the community. You can’t make a difference hanging out in a building. Be a part of the community somehow.”
Todd and his peers are working hard to solve the country’s problems on an administration level. He even gets in where he can to help on a personal level. It is important that we all do our part, take ownership of our mental health, and stop suffering at home as if it is our only option.
“I’ve got another option. Are you willing to try?”