Home Health Care Mental Health Association of Westchester marks 70 years

Mental Health Association of Westchester marks 70 years

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CEO Amy Kohn in her Mental Health Association of Westchester office in Tarrytown. Photo by Aleesia Forni.

During the course of its more than 70-year history, the Mental Health Association of Westchester Inc. has undergone a number of changes. But one thing that has remained is the organization’s reliance on a single mantra

“If not us, then who?” asked Amy Kohn, CEO of the Tarrytown-based nonprofit.

Founded in 1946 primarily to meet the needs of returning World War II veterans, the organization offers an array of services for individuals with mental health conditions, from treatment options to housing assistance, with each service guided by a simple idea: recovery is possible.

“We know this to be true because we see it all the time and that really guides us,” Kohn said. That approach is in contrast to other organizations, which see mental health problems “through the lens of chronic illness,” she said.

“It’s not about you’re sick one day and you’re cured the next. Recovery means you recover your life,” said Kohn. “You can recover from anything but not be cured.”

The organization also places an emphasis on connecting individuals with others who have been through that recovery process and are able to share their life experiences and provide hope to others who may be in similar situations.

“These are people who have lived it and know it,” she said. “The empathy is immediate and that leads to greater awareness of what the real challenges are and the real opportunity of getting better.”

Kohn said that focus is embodied at the organization’s Sterling Community Center at 29 Sterling Ave. in White Plains. “It’s entirely run by individuals with lived experience, including the licensed clinicians and the director,” she said.

The Sterling facility is not your typical adult day center.

“Individuals can come and go as they please for as much or as little time, for as long as they want,” Kohn said. “They’re very much directing the types of activities that are offered.”

Along with a food pantry and a clothing shop, the center also offers a number of workshops and group activities, from computer lessons and political debates to yoga and martial arts classes.

A recent workshop coached participants on how to get a date, Kohn said.

“The emphasis is always to integrate them back (into society),” she said. “Human nature is to go where people look and sound like you, however, if you’ve done yoga here a couple of times, why don’t you try a yoga class where you live? Why don’t you take an evening educational class?”

Peers are also an important component in one of the organization’s newest initiatives, On Track, which aims to help young people aged 16 to 30 who are experiencing their first episode of psychosis. The free service uses a team approach, enlisting peers, psychologists and employment or education specialists “to get them back to their life, as opposed to becoming lifetime members of the mental health system,” Kohn said.

“The program was developed basically to get in there and change the trajectory of their lives,” said Stephen M. Smith, program director of On Track. “Obviously, it has big implications for reducing costs further down the line.”

Smith noted that many critical intervention programs are based solely on managing symptoms. “On Track is really focused on getting them back on their goals,” he said, whether those goals are graduating from high school or embarking on a new career path.

The Mental Health Association of Westchester also offers a variety of employment services for its clients. The organization offers traditional job readiness coaching, but Kohn said that’s where many employment programs typically begin and end.

“Let’s not spend six months or a year getting you ready. Let’s get you a job and let’s help you while you’re in that job,” she said. “We really recognize work as intrinsic to well-being. Folks want to work, they want to contribute, they want to be involved. And we push that envelope of who can go to work.”

The Mental Health Association has a number of relationships with employers, from large retail chains to smaller firms. The organization also aims to look beyond traditional employers, like call centers or companies that manufacture machine parts, to find jobs where individuals can thrive.

“It is the rare individual, and I’m including folks with the heavy-duty diagnoses, it’s a rare individual who cannot find some type of work,” Kohn said.

The association recently found a job for a woman who was a talented graphic designer and a man with high-level computer and programming skills.

“We just try and get as creative as we can,” Kohn said.

The Mental Health Association has also responded to external changes in recent years, particularly the vast changes in the public health care system. The organization named Charlotte Ostman as its newly created chief strategy officer in May 2015.

“It takes a great deal of time and effort and focus to know what’s coming, to understand it,” Kohn said. “It’s more than one person could do alone.”

The organization will have to navigate yet another change this summer, when after more than a decade with the association, Kohn will step down from her position as CEO.

She called her decision to step away from the organization a personal one, adding that she is “excited about creating a brand new chapter.”

“I think this is a very good time for the organization to go through a leadership transition,” she said. “We’ve been creating a strategy and have been very focused on developing our external strategy or our pathway to sustainability, and I think we’re ready to launch.”

Ostman, who has played a key role in developing relationships and business partnerships during her two-year tenure as chief strategy officer, will take the reins of the organization in June.

“I think having someone come in who is young, with a lot of energy, who is going to be around for another five or 10 years to see it through is perfect,” Kohn said.

Still, she added that there are many unknowns in the health care environment, particularly regarding any plans to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

“If the federal government throws a wrench in it, God held everybody, and I’m going to look brilliant for leaving,” she said.

Kohn called the legislation proposed by the Republican congress “draconian,” adding that could be “the end of the world for a public health system of any consequence.”

And changes to the Medicaid system, which roughly 80 percent of the organization’s clients rely on, could be catastrophic, she said.

Yet Kohn remains optimistic about the organization’s future.

“Not-for-profit behavioral health agencies have been closing all over the state, and we have huge challenges, but I can really say, if any are going to survive, it’s going to be us,” she said. “And I’m not sure anyone would argue with that.”

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