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Mental Health Matters

Author: Bonnie Durrance
January, 2013 Issue


A profile of three North Bay nonprofits helping those in our communities struggling with mental health issues.

 
Mental suffering, in all of its forms, respects no economic or social boundaries, is painful and can be fatal. Its effects reach into all levels of the community. NorthBay biz profiles three nonprofit organizations operating in the North Bay, each of which is working in its own very different way, serving very different populations and making a difference in the world of mental health.
 

Problem eating in Marin

“In 2000, the National Eating Disorders Screening Project screened all ninth graders at a local high school in Marin to uncover symptoms and concerns characteristic of eating disorders,” says Carol Normandi, MFT, co-author of It’s Not About Food (The Penguin Group, 1998). “Results showed that 52 percent of girls in this particular school suffered from disordered eating, including some kind of bingeing, vomiting, fasting, diet pill and laxative abuse or compulsive exercise, compared to only 28 percent of 14-year-old girls nationally.”
 
In an age where obesity makes headlines as a looming threat to our health care system, a growing number of girls and women (and men, as well) are trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle of body hatred and disordered eating that can consume lives and even lead to death. Beyond Hunger, a small Marin County nonprofit organization, offers support groups as an affordable alternative to the many private clinics and therapists dedicated to treating eating disorders.
 
Co-founders Normandi and Laurelee Roark (with whom Normandi co-authored the book) have created a program aimed at addressing the deep emotional causes of eating disorders and guiding clients toward body size acceptance, developing intuitive eating and taking care of themselves emotionally in ways other than overeating or undereating. Their ultimate goal is to restore the relationship between the natural body, intuitive wisdom and emotional needs, ultimately leading to a full and satisfied life.
 
“The whole body acceptance thing is a very hard concept to get,” says Roark, “because we’re a fat-phobic society, and no matter what body type we have, many of us are dissatisfied with our body and think we’re too fat.” In their book, she and Normandi talk about the complexity of the disorder, the frustration of diets that don’t work and their belief in going to the source of the problem to help their clients achieve peace around food. Their passion and their credibility stems from personal experience.
 

The personal approach

Back in the 1980s, Roark, having been unable to find help for her own eating disorder, started a support group to try to find a way to solve the problem herself. It was there she met Normandi, who was in recovery from her own eating disorder and, at the same time, just finishing her psychotherapy licensing. Together, they decided to devise a way to go deeper than the usual therapies and support groups, which, for them, hadn’t worked. “We wanted to look at the reasons underneath the eating disorder,” says Carol.
 
“When I was suffering from my eating disorder, I would go to a nutritionist, who would give me a food plan. I’d follow it for a couple of days, and then either go eat a half gallon of ice cream or cut the diet in half and then restrict, restrict, restrict…and then go back into the binge cycle.”
 
Though familiar with the success of 12-step programs with alcohol and drug addiction, the 12-step program for overeaters also didn’t seem to work for her with regard to her eating disorder. She wanted to understand and stop, once and for all, the whole obsession with body image and replace it with what she and Roark call “emotional wisdom.” Normandi adds that most of the programs that were available at the time were behavior-oriented—focused on changing what you ate—but they didn’t take in account that people with eating disorders couldn’t control the way they were eating for emotional reasons: “We couldn’t automatically change our behavior,” so she and Roark developed a “non-diet approach.”
 

Beyond Hunger

In the Beyond Hunger support groups, clients learn to pay attention to cues of hunger and fullness; to identify, express and process emotions effectively; to reject unattainable ideals and accept themselves “just as we are right now.” The support groups provide a safe place where clients discover they’re not alone, that others have successfully recovered, and that they can explore and deal with the emotional issues that may bear on their relationship with food. As they work and improve, clients can begin to develop self-esteem.
 
In addition to support groups, Beyond Hunger sponsors youth peer education and community outreach programs for schools, clubs and social service agencies, medical care providers and businesses. Normandi and Roark aren’t nutritionists, nor do they have one on staff, but they will refer clients to a nutritionist as necessary.
 
With so many treatment groups out there, why a nonprofit? The recovery process for eating disorders is very long, says Normandi, and can be expensive. “As a nonprofit, we offer a sliding scale and scholarships. We’re committed to serving our customers at a lower fee. We don’t turn anyone away for lack of funds. Anyone can drop in.”
 
Beyond Hunger is funded by foundations, grants and some individual donors, but as of yet doesn’t seek state or federal funding, because, as Normandi explains, it takes “too much infrastructure.” She admits the economy has impacted the small nonprofit and its donors. “We had a lot of individuals who were really consistent donors,” she says, “but when the economy tanked and the stock market fell…” she shrugs.
 
“It’s always a struggle, but that’s part of what we do. There are a lot of people who give willingly, because they have this experience somewhere in their life.” She says they continue to work to achieve the diversity of funding needed to remain sustainable
 

Music for mental health

In Napa Valley, the Staglin family has turned personal experience into a multimillion dollar engine for funding mental health research. In 1990, while he was a student at Dartmouth, Brandon Staglin, the son of Staglin Family Vineyard owners Garen and Shari Staglin, was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Thanks to the then-current advances in pharmaceuticals and the support of his family, Brandon was successfully treated and began a long journey back to school and, subsequently, a productive life.
 
In 1995, inspired by the “miracles” that helped their son, and concerned about all there still is to be learned about treating mental diseases, the family launched what’s become the annual Music Festival for Mental Health on the grounds of their Rutherford winery. The festival raises funds for research into the “big three” mental health diseases: schizophrenia, major depression and bipolar disorder. The festival, driven by the family’s passion for the subject, combines lectures by leading neuroscientists from all over the country with the Napa Valley’s signature combination of famous wines, music and cuisine. The 2012 Festival alone raised $1.3 million for mental health research.
 

Advancing the science in Napa

The more the Staglins learned about the field of pharmaceutical mental health treatment, the more they could see needed to be done. In 2008, with the music festival as its major fund-raiser, they formed the International Mental Health Research Organization (IMHRO), expanding their commitment to include raising awareness about mental health issues as well as funding research. The organization puts on events all across the country, and Brandon Staglin is its communications director.
 
“We currently fund about 10 scientists who are doing cutting edge research into finding the underlying mechanism of psychiatric diseases and translating that knowledge into better therapy for the near term,” he says. As he knows from personal experience, while so much has been learned and accomplished, the current pharmaceutical therapies are still far from satisfactory.
 
“Current anti-psychotic medications aren’t helpful for the cognitive symptoms of schizophrenia [being able to think clearly] or the negative symptoms of schizophrenia [flat emotional affect]. And for mood disorders, lithium helps a lot of people, but not everybody,” he says. “About 30 percent of the people who take anti-depressants aren’t helped by them.”
 
Still, the advances, he says, are exciting. “One scientist we fund, Dr. Scott Russo, is rapidly discovering new connections between treatment-resistant depression and an over-active immune system,” says Brandon. “This suggests that some people’s depression might someday soon be treated with targeted immune suppressant drugs.”
 
In 2009, the family founded another nonprofit called Bring Change 2 Mind, with actress Glen Close, whose sister suffers from bipolar disorder. This, says Staglin, is “an anti-stigma, anti-discrimination organization, geared toward letting people know there’s no shame involved in having a mental illness.” In 2011, the Staglins founded One Mind for Research with Patrick Kennedy to open up the mission to find cures for all brain disorders, including neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. “It’s the first large collaborative effort in neuroscience that’s making a roadmap for what needs to be done,” says Staglin. (See “Breaking New Ground.”)
 
While the government does support much mental health research, the Staglins and their nonprofits are looking to fund the kind of research that’s too early in its development to get government grants. Garen Staglin, a venture capitalist, understands the power and dynamics of the startup. Brandon explains that the scientists IMHRO funds are “game-changing innovators.
 
“The science that’s getting off the ground today—the ‘cutting edge’ science—isn’t eligible for funding by the government because it is too risky in terms of its outcome, as to whether it will provide anything useful,” Staglin says. “So the government doesn’t have enough data to support it yet. So that’s where private nonprofits come in.”
 
The ultimate aim of all these efforts is to create what the Staglins call a “Circle of Hope,” which is (not so coincidentally) the name of the One Mind for Research fund-raising gala. The idea is that good builds on good. “If you inform people that there should be no shame in mental illness, that it’s worth funding and that the funding is producing advances in science to help mental illness, then people are more willing to fund. Then, more science is capable of being done. Then more and greater advances will come forward—and that creates hope!”
 
The family motivation continues to be strong. “From my perspective,” says Staglin, “I don’t like to see anyone else going through what I went through. I can speak to it. It’s deep in my heart, and my whole family’s.”
 

The pressures of the times

Community and Family Service Agency (CFSA) provides a whole spectrum of services to families in need from West Sonoma County through the greater Santa Rosa area. Its outreach extends from young children to seniors, and embraces all incomes and cultures. According to Megan Rooney, CFSA director of counseling and prevention programs, current economic conditions create a challenging paradox. “The need for services is increasing, while the resources to provide them is decreasing.
 
“What we see is that the layers of complications resulting from the economic challenges, housing challenges, our political climate, the war—all those things have layered themselves on families, and the stress and mental health issues that come with that are creating a crisis that we’re trying to address.”
 
The same economic forces that’s caused funders to withdraw support—she reports a 5 to 10 percent decrease each year for the last three years—also causes people who might never have had to depend on outside help to find themselves in need. “The challenges facing us as a community run across all economic lines,” says Rooney. “It affects people directly, as they lose their home or job, and it increases the stress the community feels.” Still, for the people at CFSA, ceasing to provide services to those in need isn’t an option.
 
“We found we had to be smarter about how we deliver those services and make the most of what resources are available,” says Rooney. CFSA is the result of a 2011 merge of Family Service Agency of Sonoma County and West County Community Services (together they operate under the current name). “The merge has been very successful for both agencies,” says Rooney. “It’s allowed us to continue our existing services and even add to them while improving efficiencies in back-office administrative operations.”
 
The agency employs nearly 100 people, ranging from full-time, part-time and temporary, including licensed therapists and trainees. It’s supported by a 10-member board of directors that includes a bank president, business owners, attorneys, realtors, an economist, a retired school principal, a human resources specialist and the founder of Latino Service Providers. The range of expertise evident on the board reflects the broad mission of the organization: to help support and strengthen the quality of family and community life.
 
Mental health and economic health go hand in hand. Homelessness, joblessness and problems related to age or educational difficulties all reach into Rooney’s department of mental health. “There’s so much loss and grief,” she says. “We’re seeing a lot more crises with children in our schools, and much higher need for intervention and support services.” Seniors have traditionally been a large client base, and she notes that today’s baby boomer seniors are a new demographic—much more “savvy” than their older counterparts and often able to recognize their need and access the services. “We provide counseling services, either in home or in our offices, to literally hundreds of seniors every year.”
 
According to Rooney, CFSA sees a lot of depression in seniors, which may stem from the usual losses associated with aging (loss of identity, loss of individuals, or loss of health) exacerbated by new losses of jobs, income and lifestyle. As a member of a county-wide consortium of senior service providers, the agency offers a screening for depression, funded by the Mental Health Services Act (MHSA became law in January 2005 and places a 1 percent tax on individual taxable income in excess of $1 million) which enables the organization to assess and screen seniors for depression and suicidal tendencies. This funding is part of the Prevention & Early Intervention focus of a portion of MHSA funding. It also offers senior peer counseling, using trained volunteers, which enhances the esteem and purpose in both the givers and receivers of the counseling.
 
One of the benefits of providing low-fee counseling services like this is that it not only helps the community but it also provides an opportunity for interns to get training. “We accept applications twice a year for interns,” says Rooney. All interns are pre- or post-masters degree MFT (marriage and family therapy) interns or trainees. They apply for one year, and often find the work so satisfying they stay on through their certification. Interns are paid a small salary, and are trained in anger management, domestic violence and senior counseling services.
 
Almost all the agency’s funding comes through various grant sources tied to the county and state. “The agency,” Rooney says, “is providing a broad range of support services to a vulnerable part of our community—and doing it on a very, very short string. What once could be funded through state, federal and county avenues isn’t anymore. We need private corporations and foundations to look at how they can support the community through existing nonprofits.”
 
“We do a small amount of individual and foundation fund-raising, but we’re a very stretched staff doing a lot of work. Fund-raising takes a lot of time and energy, and it’s very challenging to do that on our own. It would be great to have some private people volunteer to oversee fund-raising.” Attracting that kind of help isn’t easy, she allows, given the nature of CFSA’s work. “It’s not flashy, or sexy. It’s about people who are struggling to put food on the table, or even to have a table, who are isolated and alone. Our work doesn’t have the high profile that other causes do. It’s under the radar and, meanwhile, people are really struggling.”
 

Generous hearts carry communities

No one of these nonprofits expects to solve the entire problem of mental illness. But all of them serve a particular need and a certain population. Together, they weave a net of social responsibility that, in the end, helps to create a network of health and support. And that support helps to serve the health of all.


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