Mental Health America of Lake County is a non-profit organization dedicated to transforming the communities it serves by providing programs and services to families dealing with mental health issues.
“Our goal was to provide these services from within all eight county hospitals, which was accomplished,” MHA CEO and President Renae Vania-Tomczak said.
This year, MHA of Lake County marked its 60th anniversary.
To celebrate that milestone, MHA staff teamed with St. Catherine Hospital of East Chicago to host “A Salute to Family Well-Being” Legacy Breakfast at the Center for Visual and Performing Arts in Munster.
The organization arranged for Paul Gionfriddo, national MHA president and CEO, to deliver a keynote address to more than 100 guests. St. Catherine Hospital hosted the May 11 breakfast and a panel of mental health practitioners.
“St. Catherine Hospital has been a long-time partner with our organization. When they heard we were putting on this event, they wanted to sponsor it,” Vania-Tomczak said. “We haven’t done it in several years, so we thought it would be a good idea to bring this tradition back and raise awareness for mental health. We believe, very simply, that there is no health without mental health.”
Sharing the philosophy of treating the whole person – mind, body and spirit – is St. Catherine Hospital Behavioral Health Services (BHS) of Community Healthcare System. The hospital is home to Adult and Older Adult inpatient Behavioral Health Services for mental health. It the hub for outpatient treatment programs managed through Centers for Mental Wellness in East Chicago, Crown Point/Schererville.
On May 11, as employees from MHA of Lake County, local hospitals and community members checked in for the Legacy Breakfast they were invited to pick out one or more beaded necklaces in different colors. Each color symbolized a mental illness that either they, or someone they knew had been affected by.
“These kinds of events bring awareness of mental health and mental health concerns and give us the opportunity to talk about ways we can do things better,” Gionfriddo said before his speech.
Gionfriddo’s work in public and mental health includes authoring a policy blog called, Our Health Policy Matters, serving numerous non-profit organizations throughout the country and operating a consulting business specializing in public health. He held a full-time, elected post in the Connecticut State Legislature and was mayor of Middletown, Ct., for two years.
Over the last 30 years, his interest in mental health issues have not only stemmed from the workplace.
Gionfriddo and his wife adopted a son named Tim who received a late diagnosis of Schizophrenia in his life – despite repeated attempts in the 1980s to help him.
“Tim graduated from high school with difficulties, held a few jobs with difficulties and even tried to live on his own, but with difficulties,” Gionfriddo said. “We didn’t understand things about mental health as we do now.”
“We didn’t know back then that half of mental health issues emerge in individuals before age 14,” he added. “We have to start with kids; and we didn’t understand that.”
One goal of MHA is to place mental health issues on the same plane as other disabilities, like kids in wheelchairs or adults with cancer and diabetes.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so if organizations like Mental Health America of Lake County can get treatment to kids and families early, this may prevent the need for intensive, inpatient hospital services as an adult,” said Jake Messing, BHS program director. A licensed clinical social worker, Messing participated in a panel discussion on mental health issues after Gionfriddo’s address.
The B4Stage4 program is one initiative aimed at detecting and treating mental illness at an early age. Prevention and treatment early on, from age 0 to 5, is the best way to lower the negative statistics of those with mental health issues, according to the MHA.
“Because we know 75 percent of mental health conditions begin by age 24, and about one in five adults in the U.S. experience mental illness each year, early identification and intervention, along with integrated health and behavioral health services can change lives for the better,” said Joseph Fanelli, MD, Psychiatry, BHS medical director.
St. Catherine Hospital CEO Leo Correa told the audience, “We share a kindred goal: To strengthen partnerships with mental health providers throughout Northwest Indiana, and build upon our mission to offer innovative, compassionate and comprehensive mental health care.”
Just as telling in the room were the bright blue, red and gold strands of beads worn by individuals in the room. “These beads symbolize our connectedness through these diseases,” Vania-Tomczak said. “Mental health impacts every single person and organization.”
Looking across the room, MHA Board of Directors Chairman John Frayek said, “These folks do amazing things. They are life’s angels here on Earth.”
You can read more about Gionfriddo’s experience within the mental health industry in his book “Losing Tim: How Our Health and Education Systems Failed My Son with Schizophrenia,” which was published in 2014.