Another Voice: Stigma attached to mental illness must end

Another Voice: Stigma attached to mental illness must end

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By Michael J. Billoni

During Mental Health Awareness Month in May, Karl Shallowhorn, of the Mental Health Association of Erie County and Compeer of Greater Buffalo, wrote that mental health needs to be recognized every month of the year, saying we are in a crisis in Western New York and the stigma associated with mental illness is keeping people from seeking much-needed help.

The Restoration Society Inc. is a peer-operated private nonprofit agency providing recovery-based rehabilitation services for adults diagnosed with significant long-term psychiatric conditions who may also have a co-occurring alcohol/drug dependency.

The agency, founded here in 1973, is modeled after the Fountain House in New York City. Its innovative, nontraditional program is dedicated to the recovery of those with mental illness by providing opportunities to live, work and learn, while contributing their talents through a community of mutual support.

Jack Guastaferro, executive director of the Friendship Foundation of the Restoration Society, has been in the mental health field for 46 years, including 33 years as the society’s CEO before retiring last year.

Rather than taking a traditional approach to mental health services, Guastaferro and staff began getting customers involved with their recovery through a mutual self-help strategy wherein customers determine their personal objectives and direct efforts to achieve these.

At Restoration Society, the individual is in charge, and staff members support and facilitate the person’s efforts to grow and change.

Consistent with the Restoration Society’s philosophy, former first lady Rosalynn Carter chairs the Carter Center Mental Health Task Force, an advisory body of experts, consumers and advocates promoting positive change in the mental health field.

Its mission: End the stigma of mental illness throughout the world.

As a Friendship Foundation board member and one who has been at ECMC many times since my near-fatal bicycle accident in 1992, I have personally seen and experienced the stigma of those struggling with mental illness.

Talking with children, teens, adults and seniors who could benefit from help, I have learned that many are afraid to seek treatment because of how others may perceive them. This is due, in many ways, to how some people with behavioral health illnesses are portrayed negatively in the media, on television shows and in movies, and that influences how their employers, teachers and peers view them.

It is time we change this picture and recognize the abilities and potential contributions of these individuals.

Michael J. Billoni, of Grand Island, is managing partner of Billoni Associates and treasurer of the Friendship Foundation.

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