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Amidst a crisis, new WNY Mental Health Advocates leader wants to evolve services

The Mental Health Advocates of Western New York will be welcoming a new executive director beginning next month. Melinda DuBois will take over for Kenneth Houseknecht, who is retiring after working for nine years. Dubois shared some of her vision of the future of Mental Health in the region with WBFO’s Nick Lippa. 

Nick Lippa: How did you end up coming into this position?

Melinda DuBois: I currently am employed at Planned Parenthood of Central and Western New York, and have been connected with mental health communities for my entire career. I've been on the board of Crisis Services. I'm currently on the board of Horizon Health Services. The connection to the mental health community has always been extremely important to me. Before I was at Planned Parenthood, I worked at SUNY Geneseo, where I was the administrative director of student housing counseling and worked very closely with a student body to help raise awareness about mental health issues. So when I heard that Kenneth Houseknecht was retiring, I looked at the organization and realized that this is really a perfect fit for me. And I feel like I can have a great impact on the community, which is really struggling right now.

What do you want to see for mental health advocates in Western New York? What do you want to accomplish and what's your vision?

MD: RIght now is a pretty amazing time in our community and actually in our world. We are at a real crisis where we're struggling with the effects of this global pandemic. We are struggling with an enormous amount of grief and loss, whether that is our community members losing loved ones or people that are dying. In the hospitals alone, people that are losing jobs and are struggling with this unknown future. We don't even know if our children are going to be in school this year. And on top of all of this, we as a community and country are struggling with the effects of generations of systemic racism and trauma. And when I look at our society now, I look at this time as a crisis, but also as an opportunity. We have an opportunity to live a better life and to create a better world, for our society and for people that are living with mental illness. So my goal in joining the Mental Health Advocates in Western New York is to really talk more and more about raising awareness for health, for mental health, and providing support for people that are living with mental illness. And to really address the stigma that's associated with mental illness. We know one in five people live with a diagnosed mental illness. And right now in the middle of this time when we're dealing with a global pandemic 50% of our society meets the definition for depression or anxiety.

You’re coming into a position where we talk about stigma a lot. What is one of the biggest misconceptions of mental health within Western New York that you think needs to be identified and tackled in the community?

MD: We all know people that are living with mental illness. We all have family members who are living with mental illness. We should be talking about this more. And as a community, we should have the resources that we need in order to provide the support and help that our society needs. Really a big concern for me right now is the potential for budget cuts to the resources that our community needs the most. At this time, in our lives when we're dealing with the global pandemic, the threats to funding are more dire than ever. I just can't imagine how we support a community that is struggling with COVID, systemic racism, grief and loss when important funds are going to be cut. So as a society and as a community, we really need to lift up the support and the resources that are available for people that are living with mental illness. You shouldn't be cutting those programs.

And that's something where a lot of nonprofits are under a little bit of struggle right now. You have a master's in social work correct?

MD: Correct.

So when we talk about social work, not just during a pandemic, but even before the pandemic, when it comes to mental health providers, and I know you have experience with crisis services, that's one of the most overworked fields and one of the highest burnout fields that I've covered as a reporter. Looking from your new position, do you approach this as a way you can help social workers in the field? 

MD: Yeah. Well, that's a really good question. I envision the work that I'm going to be doing with the Mental Health Advocates is also acting as a role model organization that supports each other. I don't think that every (social work) workplace should be an enormous source of stress. I know that we can create fields and organizations and workplaces that are supportive that really address the health and wellbeing of the workers. When I think about the enormous stress that our medical field as well as our mental health field are under, I don't think we're doing enough to support our workplaces.

MD: You know, when I heard that story of Dr. Lorna Breen, who was an MD doctor working in the Bronx who died by suicide, one of the reasons or one of the things that stood out for me about her was the fact that she didn't reach out for help. A lot of people in the mental health field, a lot of people in the medical field feel like they are helpers and that they don't deserve the help that all of us need. So I would love to be able to support our providers. And one of the programs that the Mental Health Advocates has is actually going into workplaces and providing education and awareness on workplace stress and on work life balance. And that is a program that I will be participating in and that I'm proud about.

One of the topics that has been coming up is transitioning back to school in whatever format that's going to be. Will Mental Health Advocates of Western New York be having any involvement with public schools or the Buffalo Public Schools moving forward?

MD: Yeah. So the MHA of WNY has a lot of different programs. And one of those programs is to go into public schools and provide education, awareness and emotional support and education for youngsters. We're not in the schools right now, but we hope to return to the schools. We're also in the hospitals providing family support and peer support. We have a big peer support program-- young adults and teenagers that provide educational awareness. We also have an information and referral service. And we provide legal support for people that are diagnosed with mental illness. And so we are in every aspect of our communities providing support, awareness, and information and referral.

MD: So one of the things that I'm thinking about a lot is how do we support our workers who, again, working from home who are all of a sudden providing. They’re teachers. They're working. Their children are at home full time and the enormous amount of stress that they're under, as well as the impact of this major change in youngsters lives-- they should be in school. And being part of a classroom and being with our friends and learning in that environment, we know that's healthy for youngsters. So we have to figure out a way to provide those kinds of resources and support for schools in different ways. I think this pandemic has also forced us to really look at the way we provide services and resources differently. I know at Planned Parenthood, we quickly transitioned to telehealth services. It's one of those things that we had been thinking about doing for many years and we had a small program and then all of a sudden within two weeks, all of our care that we were providing was through telehealth. And I think that more and more agencies are thinking about how they're going to be able to provide the services that they provide in a different way. And so maybe use that as an opportunity. We're in the middle of this crisis, but it's also an opportunity to do things differently, and to think about how things might work better.

When we talk about where a lot of these resources are going to go, do you think a lot of it is transitioning to places like telehealth moving forward?

MD: I think it is, but I think that there is another opportunity that is out there and that is really for human service organizations to look at the ways they're providing services. Honestly, I don't know if you're aware of that WNY MHA is moving to a new location at 1021 Broadway. And I'm really excited about this move because what is happening at 1021 Broadway is pretty innovative. We are going to be basically living with six other human service organizations. And we're going to be partnering on programs, but we're also going to be partnering on sharing expenses and resources. A lot of human service organizations are competing for funds and shrinking funds, to be honest. And so, at 1021 Broadway, we have a collaborative. We're going to be partnering with these other groups to really help us provide better care so that the back office part of the organizations are going to be shared and taken care of so that we can really focus all of our efforts out in the community.

1021 Broadway is in Buffalo. You also reside in East Aurora. When we talk about Western New York, we're not just talking about a city environment. The Rural Outreach Center is available. But coming from the area that you live in, how do you approach rural mental health?

MD: When I was working at Planned Parenthood, that was one of those important questions that we had to-- one, see an opportunity that I see here is providing care through telehealth because not every community can have the support and resources they need. Again, we just don't have the funding in our state to provide the necessary resources. But what I know is that people can still access those services through telehealth or through connecting through online resources or through the phone as a board member of Horizon. That the programs at Horizon have really grown during this COVID crisis. And that is because more and more people are reaching out, thankfully, to get help. And they're able to access the care that they need through telehealth. One of the interesting projects that I've been working on with Planned Parenthood is to increase access through telehealth. But what we have to recognize is that not every person has access to a smartphone or computer or honestly the internet. So this also brings up this enormous need to take care of these digital divides or being aware some rural communities really are a digital desert. And how do we reach those communities where they don't have access to the internet? And how can we look at funding those communities so that they do have access to the vital services? And if those services are not in their communities and we look at those services through telehealth, how can we make sure that those communities have access, the same access that some of our urban communities have?

As we destigmatize, which is hard enough for rural communities, and you have more people that want to come out to access mental health, but also you don't have enough funds to reach some of the people that you want to reach-- from an outside perspective it looks like you are playing a game of funding Tetris when it comes to trying to make all the puzzle pieces fit to try to serve as many people as you possibly can.

MD: Yeah, it's funny. I think it is. And I think the thing that is unique about the Mental Health Advocates is that we're not necessarily a service provider. What we do is advocate for people that are living with mental illness and support our service providers and support our community. So it's really important that we have a voice. And not only do I have a voice as the executive director, but people that are living with mental illness need to be heard. And so we have some campaigns, now organizations. We're also partnering with the Erie County Anti-Stigma Coalition to really lift up those voices so that people that are living with mental illness and are working and have family members and are thriving and surviving, are heard. And those voices are really the most important voices that we need to lift up.

Nick Lippa leads our Arts & Culture Coverage, and is also the lead reporter for the station's Mental Health Initiative, profiling the struggles and triumphs of those who battle mental health issues and the related stigma that can come from it.
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