Summit will raise awareness about mental health

COM logoFor immediate news release

7/20/2015

MENTAL HEALTH TRAINING FOR COMMUNITY MEMBERS TO BE OFFERED AT NIAGARA UNIVERSITY

In response to growing mental health needs in the community, the Mental Health Association in Niagara County, Inc., is teaming up with Niagara University and Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center to present “Changing Our Minds: A Mental Health Summit”. It is open to the public and is recommended for anyone who wants to be more aware and better prepared to respond to mental illness, both in the workplace and in everyday situations.

The summit will take place on Saturday, September 19, from 10 am to 1pm at Niagara University and the cost is $15 per person.

This compelling and engaging program will include dynamic speakers and presentations, demonstrations, useful training materials and more. Attendees will learn to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental illness in those around them, and learn how to respond in a supportive manner in assisting people in accessing the mental health services they need.

Eric Weaver, a retired sergeant with the Rochester Police Department and the founder of Overcoming the Darkness, will be speaking on the importance of overcoming the stigma of mental health. Maryalice Demler, news anchor for WGRZ-TV in Buffalo and an alumna of Niagara University, will serve as the Master of Ceremonies. The event will also feature a resource fair composed of vital local community service agencies, providing an opportunity for attendees to become familiar with the people and programs that support mental health.

Dr. Timothy Osberg, a professor of psychology at Niagara University who will be speaking at the summit, said mental health issues have been growing on campus as well as in the community.

“It is critically important that more people have the willingness and skills to help others in crisis so that fewer tragedies occur,” Dr. Osberg said.

Osberg believes the summit will provide all attendees — whether they are faculty, staff and students of Niagara University or members of the larger community — with the needed skills.

Mental Health Association in Niagara County Executive Director Cheryl Blacklock notes that with the rise in suicides among youth and the prevalence of mental health in general, the conference will play an important role in addressing the stigma of mental illness.

“We have to have open discussions about mental health if we are going to improve prevention and treatment,” Blacklock said.

“Educating and sensitizing members of the community is a vitally important task,” said Christopher Kijowski, LCSW, supervisor of outpatient behavioral health at Niagara Falls Memorial. “Compassion is an important value, as it helps to confirm the belief that the transformation of the mind and heart are possible for every human being.”

Businesses and other organizations are encouraged to send at least one employee to attend the summit, and to designate that person as a “mental health ambassador.”

For more information, call the Mental Health Association in Niagara County, Inc., at (716) 433-3780, ext. 304. To register online, visit www.mhanc.com.

The Mental Health Association in Niagara County, Inc. is funded by the New York State Office of Mental Health, the Niagara County Department of Mental Health, the United Way of Greater Niagara, the United Way of the Tonawandas, grants, memberships and voluntary contributions.

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First Aid for Mental Health

Re-printed by permission from Greater Niagara Newspapers.

Imagine yomental health first aidu are out to lunch with a friend, co-worker or parent. As you begin your meal, you notice something odd: she can’t seem to lift her fork. You make a little joke and she responds by smiling on just one side of her mouth. It occurs to you that these are the signs of a stroke. Calmly, you ask her to say something but she can’t put a sentence together. At this point, you know it’s time to call 9-1-1.

Now imagine another, similar scene. This friend, colleague or parent you have known for years has met you for lunch but is behaving oddly. He has just ordered a second drink yet you have never known him to drink at lunch. There is also a change in mood: instead of being excited about an invitation to play golf, he seems not to care. In fact, he doesn’t seem to be able to focus on the conversation. You react by thinking, “what’s wrong with him? Why can’t he control himself?” You may be uncomfortable addressing the situation and simply leave feeling disappointed.

When a person shows unusual behavior, feelings or thoughts, it can be a sign of mental distress. Rather than judgment from friends and family, what that person needs is something akin to “mental health first aid”: someone else to recognize there is a problem and offer assistance in getting the best help.

Because the general public lacks knowledge about basic mental health, it is common for signs of mental illness to go unrecognized for years. Both the person suffering and the people around him may not realize that the symptoms are real, potentially serious and treatable. Unfortunately, the impact of our ignorance is not small.

When mental health disorders go unrecognized and untreated, there are serious implications to an individual’s physical health, quality of life and independence. Consider this: mental illness can take 25 years from someone’s life. That’s more than all cancers combined and possibly more damaging than smoking 20 cigarettes a day. Early intervention can lessen the impact and even prevent the development of a serious disorder that could interfere with education, work and family life.

There is also a corresponding cost to society. The financial costs of mental illness rival that of cancer. Jails and juvenile detention centers are full of individuals who might not be there if their mental illnesses had been properly addressed at the onset. Finally, social services must often intervene to provide assistance to people who can no longer keep a job or were never able to finish school. Basically, our lack of understanding about mental health prevents both the identification and treatment of disorders– a concerning situation especially when we consider that the National Institute of Mental Health estimates that almost 44 million adults had a diagnosable mental disorder in 2012.

While many changes can be made to public policy, there are things each of us can do starting now to be more responsive to mental health issues. It starts by taking care of those around us. Family, friends, co-workers, teachers, school counselors and neighbors are often the first to notice when something is “not quite right” with someone. Each of us can certainly learn to recognize the signs of a mental disorder in the same way we would recognize the signs of a heart attack or stroke.

Here are some key things to look for: recent social withdrawal or apathy, an unusual drop in functioning at work or school including quitting sports, failing or inability to concentrate, dramatic changes in appetite, sleep, hygiene or mood, a heightened sensitivity to sounds, sights, smells or touch, and problems with logical thought and speech. Basically, uncharacteristic and peculiar behavior, feelings or thinking should raise a red flag.

If you become concerned about someone’s mental health, the creators of Mental Health First Aid, Betty Kitchener and Anthony Jorm, suggest following these five steps: assess for risk of suicide or harm; listen nonjudgmentally; give reassurance and information; encourage appropriate professional help; and encourage self-help and other support strategies.

If you suspect someone is actively suicidal, you can call the Niagara County Suicide Prevention Hotline at (716) 285-3515. For a list of all the emergency phone numbers in Niagara County, you can obtain a Help Book from the Niagara County Mental Health Association in Niagara County Inc. by calling (716) 433-3780 or going online at http://www.mhanc.com.


Original publication date: March 15, 2015. The column Mind Matters is a regular column of the Niagara Gazette and Lockport Union-Sun Journal.

Pamela Szalay is the Director of Marketing and Operations at the Mental Health Association in Niagara County Inc. and provides educational presentations and workshops on mental health topics for the community. You can reach her by email.

Pamela.image

Support groups offer friendly and effective therapy

TitleRe-printed by permission from Greater Niagara Newspapers.

paper cutoutsPicture this: you are facing a crisis. Maybe you just got diagnosed with major depression or a chronic illness, or perhaps you have suffered a significant loss. What do you do? In addition to receiving treatment from doctors and professional, you are likely to seek out emotional support and even advice from family and friends. But sometimes more is needed. When faced with a stressful life challenge, receiving emotional support is an important part of accepting, adjusting and recovering. While your friends or family may be there for you, sometimes they are not able to offer all the help you need or even understand what you are really going through.

So where can you find a safe place where others in the same situation are willing to listen to you, share their own experiences and even offer advice and support?

A mutual aid support group can provide just that. Support groups can be considered “informal therapy” as no referral is required, the meetings are often led by peers, and there is no commitment. A professional may serve merely as an advisor or co-facilitator, and you can be as passive or as active as you’d like. This provides a great deal of flexibility and convenience, which may be exactly what you need to convince yourself it’s worth a try.

How effective can peer-led, mutual aid support groups be? In many situations, research is proving it to be comparable to one-on-one therapy with a professional. One study looked at people suffering from moderate depression and found that there was little difference in the outcome for those attending peer-led mutual support groups versus those working with trained therapists. For bereaved parents, involvement in a support group led to a greater sense of control and decreased depression, guilt and anger. Similar findings were found in groups for the elderly, former mental health patients and those diagnosed with a chronic illness.

The level of participation in a support group does make a difference.Studies have shown that individuals with strong attendance and involvement in the group have the best outcomes. In the area of substance abuse, for example, high attendance at a self-help meeting was related to lower use of alcohol.Additionally, members of support groups who were highly active tended to report higher levels of self-esteem and more effective coping skills.

There are many theories about why support groups work. First, there is the social aspect which contributes to reduced feelings of isolation. There is an instant sense of community when people identify with each other and relate to each others’ struggles.Second, the members of the group offer a pool of knowledge that is a professional is unlikely to have.Support group members have “inside information” cultivated from their own experience, which can be a great help to other members making decisions about treatment, personal matters and more.Finally, there is the effect of “helper therapy”. Those members who contribute to the group by helping others tend to feel better and make better progress in their journey to recovery.

As sensible as all this may seem, people can still find many reasons to avoid attending a support group even if they are struggling. A big reason is stigma.While it can be difficult for people to admit they need help, a bigger fear is admitting this to others. They may feel uncomfortable with nurturing their emotional life and fear that others will view them as week or needy.Worse yet, they may fear being associated with anything related to mental health.

If you feel you could benefit from a support group but have concerns about how people will look at you, remember you are not taking your acquaintances with you to the meetings.They will not be privy to your thoughts and feelings. An advantage of a support group is that the people there are strangers, so you have not reputation to maintain.Plus, a general rule among support group members is “no judgment”. Support groups are places of confidence where you can safely share whatever is on your mind.

Finding the right support group for you may take a little effort, but there are many resources available. Some groups are even available online.The Mental Health Association in Niagara County maintains a list of support groups and even sponsors several in Lockport and Niagara Falls. They also provide periodic trainings for support group leaders and have resources for individuals who wish to start one. For more information, visit www.mhanc.com or call 716-433-3780.


The original publication date was February 15, 2015 under the title Crisis Control: Getting by with a little help from your group. Mind Matters is a regular column of the Niagara Gazette and Lockport Union-Sun Journal.

PamePamela.imagela Szalay is the Director of Marketing and Operations at the Mental Health Association in Niagara County Inc. and provides educational presentations and workshops on mental health topics for the community. You can reach her by email.

Science sheds some light on the winter blues

Re-printed by permission from Greater Niagara Newspapers.

snow covered pathI know, I know. You’re tired of this cold weather, the cloudy skies, the miserable commute. You feel shut-up, unable to do your usual activities, reluctant to face the bitter cold even to fetch a gallon of milk or a cup of hot coffee.

This is typical winter weather in our region, and with the end of the holiday season it is literally darker than ever. This is the time of year when some of us really get down in the dumps. Some of us even get depressed.

One of the downsides of the stigma surrounding mental illness is that we tend to downplay the role of emotions in our health. We discount them as irrational or meaningless. But emotions can serve as valuable indicators. If they are causing a disruption to our lives, we may need to investigate them as well as what is happening in our bodies. If you are struggling to get through the day, feeling tired and irritable, not sleeping well, having trouble concentrating, experiencing hopelessness and avoiding people, you may be dealing with more than a simple mood swing. You may have a case of Seasonal Affective Disorder, or S.A.D.

Having lived here far above the equator for about 90% of my life, I am statistically more likely to be affected by S.A.D. than someone living in Florida. But is this a sign that I am a wimp? Am I just not cut out for the inconvenience and unpleasantness of our harsh winters?

Whether you identify with my plight or feel inclined to shake your head in pity or disgust, I am pleased to point out that science is here to defend me and all of us battling S.A.D. Research shows that the primary culprits behind moodiness this time of year is lack of sunlight and a disruption of circadian rhythms, and there are tangible physical processes involved that affect both our behavior and our hormones.

First, it is important to understand what a circadian rhythm is. It’s a process that the body goes through along a 24-hour cycle and it can be reset by an external influence. The sleep cycle is an example of a circadian rhythm which is influenced by light levels. When darkness is detected, the hormone melatonin is secreted from a gland in our brain. Melatonin modulates sleep patterns according to circadian and seasonal rhythms. More melatonin is secreted as darkness increases, so as we are experiencing some of the darkest days of the year our levels of melatonin are changing. Our bodies may produce it either earlier or later in the day, causing unusual shifts in our mood.

There is a complex chain of events that can result in undesirable levels of melatonin. As scientists begin to understand the process, they are gaining insight into how to adjust these levels to help people suffering from S.A.D., major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder.

While the future looks promising, there are also many options available right now for those suffering from S.A.D. For example, light therapy is effective for 50 to 60 percent of people. You can try to soak up as much natural sunlight as possible by getting on a consistent sleep schedule and getting up early to catch the morning rays. A broad spectrum light box can be used as well. For faster results, aerobic exercise is recommended. A brisk walk outside is especially helpful, as it increases exposure to sunlight while improving mood and reducing stress.

Diet also plays a role. You may be craving carbohydrates, but sugary foods only cause a temporary energy spike followed by a crash. To avoid this rollercoaster in your mood, satisfy your craving with complex carbohydrates like rice or potatoes or healthy simple carbs like fruits.

Also, it is important not to isolate yourself, as tempting as that can be when your mood is low. Staying active and interacting with people will boost your mood.

Finally, if you suspect that professional help is needed, therapy and medications can be very effective. These are available by talking to your doctor.

The overall message, beyond the importance of treating mood disorders like the winter blues, is that to maintain wellness we must consider our bodies and our minds. If we want to live life to its fullest, we cannot afford to allow fear and stigma of mental health issues to prevent us from taking care of all aspects of our health, including our mysterious moods.


Mind Matters is a regular column of Greater Niagara Newspapers. The above article was published on January 18, 2015 in the Niagara Gazette, Lockport Union-Sun Journal and Tonawanda News.

Pamela SzalayPamela Szalay is the Director of Marketing and Operations at the Mental Health Association in Niagara County Inc. and provides educational presentations and workshops on mental health topics for the community. You can reach her by email.

Mental Health Association offers “Before I Die” wall to the community

Before I Die whiteboard2

Board created by staff of MHA in Niagara County.

May is a special month to the Mental Health Association in Niagara County. Not only do we promote May is Mental Health Month, but we are celebrating our 50th year of service to the community. Our age makes us reflect: what have we accomplished? What is yet to be done? Are we making a difference?

Our executive director, Cheryl Blacklock, recently learned about the “Before I Die” project, which is essentially a global art project that invites people to write on enormous blackboards in response to the prompt, “Before I die…” This opportunity to publicly express private aspirations has generated a strong response from people all around the world. Community boards have sprung up around the U.S. and in faraway places like Australia and Taiwan.

Here at our office in Lockport, NY, the MHA staff started their own project by making use of an existing whiteboard in our conference room. Responses so far have ranged from “Before I die I hope I can travel the world” to “Before I die I want to invent something.” Our board has inspired many of us to reflect, and our responses have sparked many conversations around the lunch table.

We want to invite you to write on our board, too!  No matter where you live, you can participate. If you are local, feel free to visit our office at 36 Pine Street, Lockport, NY and add to the board we started in our conference room. If you are not local, or just can’t make it to the office, we invite anyone reading this to contribute to our virtual board using the form below. That way, wherever you are, you can be a part of our community.

To participate virtually, just enter your thoughts in the form and click “submit”–your response will be added to the MHA Niagara community project. You can see all the responses people have submitted here.

Of course, if you wish you can submit online and come and write on our office board. While you’re here, you can visit our resource library or pickup a free brochure about a mental wellness topic. You can also join the Mental Health Association in Niagara County, ensuring that our services and programs continue to meet the needs of our community. We offer individual memberships starting at just $15 for the year! For more information about our programs and services, please visit our website at mhanc.com.

Be well,

Pamela Szalay

Coordinator of Publicity, Community Education and Referral at the Mental Health Association in Niagara County, Inc.

Celebrating 50 Years of Service to the Community of Niagara County

NEWS RELEASE

This May marks a milestone for the Mental Health Association in Niagara County (MHA): they are celebrating 50 years of service to the community of Niagara County. MHA invites the public to join them in celebration at a reception on May 13th, from 6:00 to 8:30 p.m., at the Tuscarora Inn on Walnut Street in Lockport. The evening will feature hors d’oeuvres, live music, cash bar, a short ceremony and the opportunity to meet our staff and Board of Directors. Tickets are $25, and the MHA requests an RSVP by May 6th.

During the past 50 years, many changes have taken place concerning those with a mental illness and those who provide care for them. In the early 1960’s, there were more than 500,000 individuals locked up in mental institutions throughout America. Because of several changes in mental health and labor laws many doors to asylums were closed leaving thousands of individuals on their own, many for the first time in their lives. Many had no family or friends to turn to. Some wandered and found themselves in homeless shelters, nursing homes, on the streets, and in many instances, in the judicial system.

The MHA has worked diligently to provide the best services available for those with a mental illness, even extending support services to their families. Last year alone, the MHA served more than 98,000 people through their programs and services, including Compeer, In-Home-Respite, various support groups, our information and referral services, educational presentations and trainings, and online resources including our website, Twitter and Facebook pages.

They are proud to be a Peer-Led Agency with an open door policy. Most services are free of charge and every effort is made to go where services are needed. Presentations are provided on the topics of anger management, domestic violence, self-esteem, bullying, suicide prevention, healthy living and much more. These presentations can be scaled to reach individuals as well as larger groups.

The MHA seeks to have the most accurate, up-to-date, professional information and referral program available. Since 1981, the MHA has published and distributed tens-of-thousands of Help Books, a pocket-sized directory of community services now in its 28th edition. Together with the Help Line and website, and through its partnership with the Niagara County Department of Mental Health, the MHA is able to offer information and referral 24-hours a day, 7 days a week.

MHA is very fortunate to receive funding through the United Way of Greater Niagara, the United Way of the Tonawanda’s, the Niagara County Department of Mental Health, private donations, membership fees and grants. MHA looks forward to continuing to provide essential programs and services to Niagara County residents for many more years.

Long-time Staffer Sees Big Challenges in Mental Health Field

By Betty Intihar, Front Office Assistant at the Mental Health Association in Niagara CountyImage

Hello, my name is Betty Intihar and I have been an employee of the MHA for 28 years. The Compeer Niagara program had just begun in Niagara County and I was the first person hired. Now I work at the front desk of our office on 36 Pine Street, Lockport, answering calls and helping anyone who comes by. If you call our Help Line, you may just get me!

Over the years, I have seen many good things happen in the mental health field: positive, new medications; more advocacy for mental health services; more peer-led support groups; better hospital advocates; and many new programs that enrich the lives of our clients. I have even seen some promising models for mental health services, such as the clubhouse model. A clubhouse would offer consumers a safe place to be with friends and enjoy some coffee and conversation. Sadly, that approach ended several years ago and no real replacement has been found. But we try to do what we can through our Help Line, and will often spend a few minutes talking to someone who just needs a friendly voice.

Many other challenges remain. With state money drying up, many mental health programs have had to close, let go valued workers, or offer fewer services.  Many organizations now operate with fewer social workers, and those that remain must handle a larger client load. Also, hospital mental health units for adults and children are being closed, leaving families in Niagara County with limited options.

There are also challenges in the areas of housing and transportation. In housing, I have found that there are many landlords who take advantage of clients. Affordable, safe housing is a rare find, and often what is available is old and unsafe.  As for transportation, that has remained a problem for all the years I have been in this field. For example, limited bus schedules between Lockport and Niagara Falls can mean traveling all morning for a 30-minute afternoon appointment. This kind of time commitment can require missing an entire day of work, and that just doesn’t seem fair.

The MHA is now entering its 50th year and I am proud to say I have been here for about two-thirds of it! I have enjoyed my work and the staff I have worked with over the years. The work we do for our clients and families is very important, and the dedication from our staff is outstanding. If you have never utilized any of our services, which include a wonderful resource library and free informational brochures, I invite you to come visit us. Most people don’t know who we are until they need us. Why not see what we have to offer? We are here for you!  ◊

Child’s Diagnosis Leads to Joining Mental Health Association Board

Rebecca Wydysh

Rebecca Wydysh

By Rebecca Wydysh, President of the Board of Directors at the Mental Health Association in Niagara County.

People often ask me why I decided to join the MHA Board of Directors.  I don’t work in the mental health field, or any medical field, for that matter. My interest is much more personal and first hand…

In 2008, my daughter was your average third grader.  She had lots of friends, received great grades and all her teachers said she was “a pleasure to have in class”.  Virtually out of nowhere, things changed. She started adamantly and ferociously refusing to go to school, with no real reason or explanation.  She simply DID NOT and WOULD NOT go!   And there was no making her…she would act out emotionally and physically, to the point it would have been dangerous for her (and me), if forced.

While the school staff was extremely supportive, and tried to help in any way they could, it was clear there was no real program in place to help us.  We were given several suggestions and even ended up staying overnight at a hospital emergency wing, where we were ultimately told “good luck” and released.  We spent several frustrating days contacting our own doctors, insurance company, friends and family, just trying to get her the immediate help she needed.  Many counselors had a wait of several weeks or a month just to get a first appointment.  We felt alone and useless to help our daughter.

After several months of counseling attempts, a diagnosis of “Generalized Anxiety and School Refusal”, in-patient treatment, and home schooling, she was finally able to return to class.  Most of this might have been avoided if we had just had a better support system and treatment plan from the start. It was a difficult few years of ups and downs, but I’m happy to say that she has grown so much (in age and wisdom) and now has very little trouble going to school every day.

During our journey, I saw just how frustrating it can be to navigate the mental health system, especially where children are concerned, and I wish I had known more about the MHA and the programs we offer.  I had just started my position as Deputy Commissioner of Jurors in Niagara County with the New York State Unified Court System and was lucky to have very supportive employers and co-workers.  I cannot imagine how much more difficult, or even impossible, it would be for a parent dealing with their own mental health diagnosis during that type of crisis.

It was shortly after this experience, in 2009, that I was invited to join the Board of Directors.   I joined without hesitation, in the hope of helping in any way that I can, big or small, to support other children in our community to receive the care they need, while also supporting the parents that love them. 

I am honored to be the current Board President at MHA in Niagara Counyt, and will do all I can to raise awareness for the organization and further the crucial programs our staff works so hard every day to develop and expand.  ◊

Visit www.mhanc.com to learn more

Niagara County Community Services Directory Now Updated

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The Mental Health Association (MHA) in Niagara County, Inc., is now distributing the 28th edition of the Help Book, a pocket-sized phone directory of Community Services created specifically for residents of Niagara County.

First published by the MHA in 1981, the Help Book is part of a larger Information and Referral Program in Niagara County. In addition to the printed edition, which is available for a small fee of 25 cents, the MHA also offers a free online version and a 24/7 phone referral system called the Help Line. The online directory can be found on the MHA website  while the Help Line offers live assistance at 716-433-5432. Staff members from the MHA answer calls during office hours while Crisis Services of Niagara County handles the calls after hours.

For convenience, the listings in the Help Book are organized into over 25 categories such as Emergency Phone Numbers, Children/Youth, Counseling, Employment, Family, Food, Legal Issues, Post Offices, Senior Citizens and Veterans, to name a few. Website links are also provided when available.

MHA believes that the Help Book and Help Line are more important than ever, even though national services like 2-1-1 have tried to compete. The Help Book is updated regularly by people who live and work in the community. Employees of MHA regularly attend community meetings and gather the latest  local information, even before it is generally available to the public. A call to the Help Line gives you the inside scoop!

If you would like a copy of the Help Book 28th edition, please call us at 716-433-3780. Office hours are Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

Can you let us know how you find information for Niagara County? Please take a moment to answer our poll! Thank you.