Classmates looking for support without stigma or bias

By: Jomel Silverio, Advocate

In class this past week we spoke about signs and symptoms of mental illness and trauma. This topic reached home for a select few of the class mates in our class, the It’s T.I.M.E. class. The main topic of interest was the difference in acceptance into the Behavioral Health Court and mediation programs for those who committed violent crimes as opposed to non-violent crimes, even though both groups of people share mental illness as a way of life.

One of the classmates, who is now 49 years old, spoke about the harsh reality he faced as a child in foster care, and having to turn to a life of crime, due to the fact that nothing else was readily available as an alternative for a better life. He, like many others in the class we have facilitated, never had a family and supports that would accept him.

The conversation was reciprocal for another student in the class, who is now 45. They spoke about the injustice they face, and that the problem was mostly systemic. The class listened to these two speak about the inequality that plagues inmates who either spend the majority of their lives in jail, or have to return to the same people, places, and things that presented a life of trouble. The conversation flowed without interruption, and I expressed that change comes with numbers, and that no matter how small the change may be, it is still significant to those lives that are given a moment of clarity. As was discussed in the class, not being accepted in the BHC program, can be stressful and discouraging, especially because the acceptance criterion is so specific and exclusive.

The main theme I felt from this class is that far too many people fall through the cracks. There is a need for employment, education, and acceptance for those who have moved beyond the past and are ready to change their lives. There is a need for support without stigma and without bias.

The Stepping Up Initiative Comes to Montgomery County

By: Kathie Mitchell

The Montgomery County Commissioners approved a resolution in May to officially join the national Stepping Up Initiative which focuses on reducing the number of individuals with mental illnesses in county jails across the country.

By its proclamation, Montgomery County joins more than 350 other counties representing 35% of the United States’ population, to commit actions toward reducing the number of people with mental illnesses in their local jails.

In May 2015, The Stepping Up Initiative was launched. It is a partnership between the Council of State Governments Justice Center (CSG), the National Association of Counties, and The American Psychiatric Association Foundation.

In January 2015, the Montgomery County Forensic Mental Health Coalition was formed in response to concerns from local advocates, families, mental health providers, corrections and community corrections about the need to tackle the issue which has been labeled “the criminalization of the mentally ill.”

The county’s Forensic MH Coalition has adopted four goals:

  • Reduce the number of people with Serious Mental Illness (SMI) who are booked into jail;
  • Reduce the length of time people with SMI stay in jail;
  • Increase the number of people with SMI getting connected to community-based services and supports, and
  • Reduce the number of people with SMI returning to jail.

The Coalition has a Steering Committee which meets monthly. There are three working committees – Data, Diversion and Reentry -that also meet on a regular basis.

By joining the national initiative, the county becomes the 14th county in the state to join the initiative. The county will have access to technical assistance that is offered through webinars and the partnerships’ resources.

In addition, Pennsylvania launched a statewide Stepping Up Initiative on April 4, making it just the third state in the country to take on the issue, following Ohio and California, the CSG Justice Center reported.

At the county and state level in PA, local leaders and community stakeholders will follow a roadmap that addresses six key questions that the community must answer in order to develop a comprehensive strategy to impact the problem. The roadmap addresses key elements of a successful plan, including the need for screening and assessments for mental illness upon admission to jail; establishing a baseline for data for counties to follow; tracking progress on key outcomes, such as recidivism rates, and ensuring connections to treatment, according to the CSG Justice Center.


Scent of a boxwood puts politics at bay

By: Kathie Mitchell

As I jogged around my neighborhood this morning, a subtle but familiar scent floated by. It was the scent of boxwood, a fragrant evergreen shrub that triggers pleasant memories from my childhood every time I happen to smell it.


Ironically, I had recently been trying to remember the name of this bush as I described it to our justice and recovery class at the county jail as a trigger of a positive memory. Until I passed by the yard this morning, I had not recalled the name. Suddenly as I inhaled deeply, “boxwood” promptly appeared in my mind.  The recall shows just how powerful a “person, place or thing” can be. The taste of a certain food, a smell of a flower, the words of a song – they can all invoke powerful feelings and memories. What we do with those feelings is important. During the class, we talk about identifying triggers that can cause thoughts or behaviors that may get us into trouble. Sometimes, however, a trigger can result in a positive experience.


As I continued my jog listening to the early morning tweets from numerous birds and looking up at the clouds and blue sky, I made a mental note to tell the students at class tomorrow that my trigger was boxwoods. I wanted to tell them how it changed my state of my mind for much of the day.  For at that instant when my olfactory senses made the connection, my mind was running through the day – what happened earlier in the morning, what will happen later, what I have to do that night. At this particular moment, I was mentally reviewing some other morning tweets about the Republicans’ proposed repeal of the Affordable Care Act and the effect on Medicaid…some rather troubling thoughts.


As quickly as the fragrance hit me, it was gone. But so were the negative ruminations! I became intensely aware of everything around me. The cool spring-like air was invigorating.  A gentle breeze swayed the bare branches of large trees as I gazed upward at the blue sky, puffs of clouds meandering through and above the waving limbs. The color of scarlet became cardinals; black and white bobbing specks on a bird feeder transformed into finches. I became aware of the absence of car noise and other sounds of human awakenings.


I became mindful. I slowed to a walk. I wanted to be totally in the present, purposefully inhaling and exhaling slowly and taking an inventory of my blessings in the moment. The practice of mindfulness is another approach we have introduced to our class that helps promote calmness and an ability to focus in our students.  I thought about the boxwood bushes that used to grace the front lawn of my late grandmother’s home. I remembered her smiling face and the happiness she exuded every time I visited. She was a shining light in my life and a beacon of hope, safety and love.


Thanks to the scent of a boxwood, hours after my running shoes were put away, that light in my life is still shining.



Magic happens at MCCF through yoga and mindfulness

By: Brianne Murphy, Director of Prison Yoga Programs



I’ve been privileged enough in my work to be able to provide yoga and mindfulness classes in many different settings: schools, summer camps, libraries, youth detention centers, prisons, recovery houses, the list goes on. I never fancied myself a studio instructor, and experiences like the one I had at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility with Community Advocates is exactly why I do the work in the manner that I do.


It is clear that Community Advocates’ “It’s T.I.M.E.” Instructor JB Brooks has set up a rapport and level of trust with his participants. Any time we go to lead a class on yoga and mindfulness we never really know what to expect. But what I have come to recognize is the truly divine timing of every brush with yoga my students and I have. JB has been leading breathing exercises and adequately prepared the men for the experiential learning that was about to take place. We were beautifully led in breath by one of the participants which perfectly set the stage for the rest of our time together.


Yoga and mindfulness is experiential and inquiry based. There is no exactly right answer that can’t be found within yourself. Like the skills and topics that JB covers throughout the session, one’s personal experience and ownership of the materials is critical. What we can feel in our own bodies is what we will remember most.


Work-shopping a topic like yoga and mindfulness with a skilled co-facilitator and engaged participants is nothing short of magic. Through real life engagement with the materials we are able to have honest conversations with the participants about the overwhelming emotions that can be present in daily life. What is always most powerful is coming to share techniques that participants are already engaging with, without knowing that they were “doing yoga”. This is a beautiful testament to the wisdom of our bodies. I left feeling so fortunate to be a part of a group who is taking the time to facilitate such powerful experiences. I am counting down the days until our next session.


 *Brianne Murphy co-facilitates a new mindfulness class for students in the “It’s T.I.M.E.” re-entry class at the county jail.


Rally for Human Services in Harrisburg

FullSizeRender Murt speaking 2 Jomel and JB with signIt was a great day for advocates in Harrisburg but there’s still a lot more work for all of us to do.


Advocates from southeast Pennsylvania rallied alongside legislators and other advocates from across the state at the Capitol in Harrisburg on June 10, calling for a restoration of the 10 percent cuts to community mental health that were taken away three years ago.


Led by a team of advocates from the Mental Health Association of Southeastern PA (MHASP), members of CSP and Community Advocates were armed with a three-prong message: restore mental health funding in the state budget, implement mental health parity in our state, and step up the process of reforming forensic involvement with people with mental health conditions.


Showing their support for restoring funds and the need for quality mental health services were House Representatives Tom Murt, Montgomery County, Gene DiGirolamo, Bucks County, Margo Davidson, Delaware County, and Senator Vincent Hughes from Philadelphia, as well as Sue Walther, Director of the Mental Health Association in PA (MHAPA).


On his Facebook page Rep. Murt wrote:

“I had the honor and pleasure of speaking at a rally today to draw attention to the needs of people who depend on our Department of Human Services. As we debate what to include in our budget, we must commit ourselves to reducing the waiting list for services and to giving a voice to those who cannot speak for themselves.”

Speaking for herself was Regional CSP Technical Assistant Penny Johnson. She spoke passionately about finding her own voice after struggling with homelessness and mental health issues, and how, with the help of community resources, she also found employment and housing. Johnson, a Certified Peer Specialist, stressed the importance of the CSP network that unites stakeholders in the mental health system to advocate together at the local, regional and state level.


Forensic Advocate and Certified Peer Specialist J.B. Brooks voiced his concerns about the struggles of individuals who have mental health and criminal justice issues. Brooks, who has lived experience in both areas, facilitates a justice and recovery re-entry class at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility (MCCF) called “It’s T.I.M.E.” The class stands for Think, Identify, Make changes and Enter a new life. Individuals learn about mental health, how to navigate the criminal justice system, how to identify and change distorted thinking, and are assisted in creating a re-entry plan to use upon discharge.


After the rally, advocates met in small groups and held pre-arranged meetings with legislators and/or legislative staff. Literature was handed out as well as information about specific services and programs offered in their districts.


But the advocacy work isn’t over. Now the negotiations start between legislators, who have some budget counterproposals, and the Governor. See “Here’s what you can do to help.”

Here’s what you can do to help:


  • Today – Call, visit, email and/or write your local House Representative and State Senator and tell them what you think about mental health services and if they have benefited you, a friend, family member, neighbor or co-worker. Each time you contact a legislator about an issue through any of these methods, it is recorded. The more calls on an issue, the more likely it makes the legislator’s radar.
  • Tell others about the state budget proposal and educate them about the need for more funding for community mental health. Be specific about which services and programs you think are worthy of attention and funding.
  • Urge others to contact their legislators about mental health and human services issues.
  • Call or mail a thank you to Governor Wolf for proposing in the state budget to restore the cuts to mental health made in 2012.
  • Call Community Advocates at 610-270-0375 if you have any questions about advocacy or to find out the names of your legislators.
  • If you have internet access, google “who is my PA legislator” to find your representative.



Mental Health Priorities not addressed by Dep. Secretary Dennis Marion

Over 50 people attended the Southeast Regional Community Support Program (CSP) Committee meeting on October 7, 2013 expecting to discuss mental health strategic planning with the state’s top administrator of mental health, Deputy Secretary Dennis Marion.

Instead, they were asked to give their opinions about involuntary commitments under the current Mental Health Procedure Act.  To be sure, it was a lively, thought-provoking and emotionally charged discussion.

And, according to Secretary Marion, for him it was enlightening.

In surveys of the audience using electronic tally devices, individuals were asked to be the delegate, or county appointed mental health review officer, in scenarios depicting situations where a decision needed to be made on a petition to involuntarily commit someone.  Responses from the audience who represented the five southeastern counties, weighed in on the side of civil liberties, with the majority saying no to forced treatment without more information.  Secretary Marion said he was surprised by this result, saying it was the opposite of a response by another group of similar stakeholders in a different region of the state.

But it’s not a surprise to longtime advocates. Part of the controversy surrounding the commitment law is how it’s interpreted. Advocates across the state are calling for mandatory training for mental health review officers to ensure statewide application of the law.

Secretary Marion said he was preparing to talk to the PA General Assembly the following week to speak about the commitment law and he intended to introduce the stigma and trauma that is suffered by the individual being committed. He heard from individuals at the meeting about their humiliating firsthand experiences – the exacerbation of symptoms triggered by being handcuffed and hauled away in front of neighbors, families, friends or co-workers. Sometimes, a blackout is experienced and the person wakes up to find themselves in restraints, sometimes naked under a bed sheet in a strange room in an unknown location.

Nine months on the job after spending most of his career in administrative roles, Secretary Marion said, “I need to listen to you to get a feel of what it’s like. I didn’t think of trauma.”

Advocates at the meeting implored the Deputy Secretary to find alternatives to police – to eliminate the lights, sirens, handcuffs, the uniforms – and provide well-trained mobile crisis teams, peer specialists and other recovery modalities to engage individuals and divert them to treatment.

But this disconnect and disservice in the mental health system is but one of many examples advocates could produce to enlighten those who control the future of mental health services in the state. Community services and infrastructure need to be strengthened as the availability of state hospital services decrease and the need to divert people from jail into treatment increases.

“You can’t do prevention if you don’t have supports,” said Nancy Schieble, Bucks County CSP Coordinator.

Sandra Watson, consultant for HopeWorx Inc. added, “The reality is we need money.”

Bill Holt, from Horizon House in Philadelphia, said behavioral health care is becoming a business.

“It’s about compliance and productivity,” Holt said. “My staff is dying off. The system is running them ragged. They are running after numbers now.”

But increasing funds for mental health budgets was not something the Secretary saw as the answer.

“We have to find a way to make it sustainable from a cost perspective,” Secretary Marion said. “Money alone without strategic planning won’t help us.”

So, advocates ask, where was the strategic planning?  It didn’t happen at the SE Regional CSP Meeting.

By: Kathie Mitchell, Director of Community Advocates of Montgomery County, PA



Suicide Prevention – Montco Cares

Suicide Prevention at the Commissioner’s Meeting

On Thursday, September 12, 2013, I attended the Montgomery County Commissioners meeting to support the county’s efforts to educate the public about suicide prevention during National Suicide Prevention Week.  After a moment of silence to remember those who had lost their lives, we heard from various members of the Montgomery County Suicide Prevention Task Force who have been spearheading an effort to “stop the silence” that surrounds suicide. Because of the stigma surrounding suicide, many people do not get the help they need.

The Task Force, whose members include the Montgomery County Department of Behavioral Health & Developmental Disabilities, Montgomery County Emergency Services and NAMI-Montgomery County, came together to share information, resourses and initiatives to help in suicide prevention.   The suicide rate in Montgomery County has increased 83.9% from 2005 to 2011. Suicide is second leading cause of death in 25-34 year olds and third leading cause of death in 10-24 year olds.

Nancy Wieman, Deputy Administrator of the county’s Department of BH/DD, introduced a new website called Montcocares which was created by the organizations on the task force. Wieman, who is the chair of the task force, said the website was designed to be a resource center on suicide prevention and features information, facts and resources on suicide and what needs to be known after an attempt. It is also a resource for organizations related to suicide awareness and prevention.

Wieman said the task force wants everyone to know that Montgomery County does care when it comes to suicide prevention.

Community Advocates of Montgomery County and Hopeworx Inc. applaud the efforts of the Task Force to bring this important cause into the public eye as a Proclamation by the county commissioners, through the creation of the Montcocares website and the distribution of the Suicide Prevention Took Kits. The pocket-size tool kits are distributed to individuals and organizations who may come in contact with people contemplating suicide. It provides information for indentifying possible suicide risk, determining if an individual may be at risk, and intervening to safely help the individual. It is meant to complement a more comprehensive training on crisis intervention and suicide prevention.

I encourage you to visit Montcocares at and learn more about how you can help stop the silence and stigma of suicide.

Kathie Mitchell, Director of Community Advocates