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On the occasion of Mental Health Awareness Month 2022, we were honored to chat with Ellen Harrison, the Executive Director of Central Virginia’s Harrisonburg-Rockingham Community Services Board (HSCRB).
Celebrating its 50th Anniversary this year, the HRCSB provides a wide variety of mental health services to over 5,000 community members in Harrisonburg & Rockingham Counties each year.
Through the lens of such an astonishing legacy of compassion, Ellen shared meaningful insights gleaned over her career, as well as her vision for the future:
G_I: Good Morning, Ellen! We are so honored to chat with you today. Can you share a bit about yourself and your history at HRCSB?
Ellen: Sure! I am Ellen Harrison. I'm the Executive Director at HRCSB. I’m finishing up my seventh year in this position. However, I have served the CSB six different times in my professional career of 22 years, in a variety of roles, including emergency services, case management, as a regional director, in acute care, among other things. It feels like coming home every time I come back.
G_I: What types of services does HRCSB provide, and for whom?
Ellen: Our service list is long. We have pathways for people with mental health disorders, substance use disorders, developmental disabilities, and many other areas. We serve across the lifespan of a person. From cradle to grave, or twinkle to wrinkle, to put it another way.
We start with babies when they're just born, work with families who might have a child with a disability, and try to set people up for the best possible chance of success through their entire life.
G_I: We know that there is unfortunate stigma around seeking mental health services. Why is that and what can we do as a society to change the dynamic?
Ellen: Yes, that’s right, and the stigma varies across cultures. Some cultures are a lot more reticent to seek out services than others, and there's often cultural barriers or language barriers, even though we have interpreters.
A way for us to address this stigma is to have conversations outside of the building that I'm in. Have them in the schools, have them in the grocery stores, have them in places of worship, where people are asking, "How are you doing? No, really. How are you doing?” and taking the time to truly listen.
And when people aren't doing well, don’t turn your head and walk away because you can't fix it. No one's expecting you to fix it. You just need to encourage the person to come see us, to come get help. That must become a common conversation.
G_I: When we are physically unwell, we go see a doctor – why is it important to view mental health in the same way?
Ellen: Because your mind and your body are connected. You can't only take care of one domain and not the other. You have to take care of both.
I believe people hesitate to come here because they feel vulnerable. You're talking about all the mistakes you might have made, or the choices you made, or ways that you feel like you might have failed yourself, even though that's not true.
So, people have to be vulnerable here, where in a medical setting, it's really about data. If you have this blood pressure measurement, so we give you this medicine. With mental health, you really have to invest in yourself because that's what will drive your health overall.
It's about mental wellness. We need to reframe our thinking. You're not broken because you come here. You are working on feeling better.
G_I: We know COVID has been a huge strain on virtually everyone in the world over the last few years. How have you seen the effects of that manifest at the HRCSB?
Ellen: It has had a horrific impact on people and children. The isolation and then the dependency on social media for our primary form of connection to humanity. We have really missed a lot with everyone when we shut down the world.
This is just my opinion; I can't quantify it with numbers, but we are seeing a significant increase in the number of children who are coming in for services. It used to be two-thirds adults, one-third child. We're almost at 50-50 now.
Our babies aren't developing at a rate that we would expect in terms of speech, emotional stability, and wellbeing because their only form of interaction was their parents. It’s not that their parents weren't doing a good job, but social interaction develops the mind the first three years.
Ironically, I would say that one of the ways COVID has helped us is it has pushed people to take the first step towards getting treatment. Doctors are a little quicker to say, "Why don't you go?".
G_I: As we congratulate and thank you and the 250 team members at HRCSB on this 50th anniversary, what do the next 50 years have in store? What would you like to see?
Ellen: I won't be here for the next 50 years, but in my mind's eye, I would love to have a campus that integrates primary care and mental health. One-stop-shopping, where we can serve the whole person.
I'd also love to have satellite offices because transportation is a problem. I’d like to meet people where they are through mobile teams. I’d like to see us out in the community so that just like law enforcement, the more you see us, the less scary we are, and the more likely you will ask, "Hey. Can you help me?"
G_I: As our last question, if readers of this take away just one thing, what would you want it to be?
Ellen: That we are here to help. Many of the people who work here have had their own journey through mental health, substance use, etc. They've been family members. They've been loved ones. They've been friends of someone who struggled. Whatever you tell us, we've already heard it. We've already lived it.
We know, and we're here to help.