Helen C. Bergman dies at 63; co-founder of D.C. mental health agency

June 20, 2011

Helen C. Bergman, who co-founded Community Connections, the largest nonprofit mental health services agency in the Washington area, and worked as an advocate for people with mental illnesses for more than 35 years, died June 13 at Georgetown University Hospital of cardiac arrest.

She was 63 and had participated in a triathlon the day before her death.

Ms. Bergman, a social worker, and Maxine Harris, a clinical psychologist, founded Community Connections in 1980 while working at St. Elizabeths Hospital in the District. In 1984, they moved the program into a separate, community-based not-for-profit organization.

“We saw people going in and out of the hospital, continuously,” she told The Washington Post in 2004. “They couldn’t find housing, jobs, counseling, churches. Nor could they get help learning basic life skills such as cooking, negotiating bus transportation and signing up for benefits.”

Community Connections, she said, was born as an attempt to establish “community systems of care.”

Each year, the organization provides clinical services for more than 4,000 men, women and children with mental illnesses and houses about 1,500 men and women in the District and Takoma Park.

As co-director, Ms. Bergman helped develop affordable housing through public-private partnerships and worked with mental health agencies in the District to advocate for resources for people with mental illnesses.

In 1998, the National Institute of Mental Health awarded Community Connections a grant to help women who suffered from mental illness and physical abuse.

“What was remarkable about Helen was her holistic approach,” said Shannon Hall, executive director of the D.C. Behavioral Health Association, a nonprofit organization Ms. Bergman helped found in 1983 which represents mental health and substance abuse clinics. “She wanted to fill the void in mental health services by championing the effort to shift it from something hospital-based to something within the community.”

Hall added that Ms. Bergman and her business partner responded effectively to shifts in mental health care.

“When she started her career at St. Elizabeths [hospital], 7,000 people lived there,” Hall said of Ms. Bergman. “Today there are maybe 350, but there are 14,000 people getting mental health care in the community. Helen helped make that happen.”

In the early 1990s, Ms. Bergman helped found Cornerstone Inc., a nonprofit housing finance agency that provides grants and loans to purchase and rehabilitate affordable housing for the mentally ill.

She and Harris also published several articles in professional mental health journals on clinical case management and the financing of mental health services.

In recent years, Ms. Bergman volunteered with the Special Olympics as a swimming coach in Bethesda.

Helen Parker Calvert was born in Newton, Mass., on January 30, 1948. She was a 1970 graduate of the University of Iowa and received a master’s degree in social work from the University of Maryland in 1976.

Her first marriage, to Craig Miller, ended in divorce.

Survivors include her husband of 33 years, Robert Bergman of Chevy Chase; a son from her first marriage, Brook Miller of Morris, Minn.; two children from her second marriage, Katie Bergman of Brooklyn, N.Y., and Peter Bergman of Chicago; three brothers, John Calvert of Stateline, Nev., Robert Calvert of Channel Islands Beach, Calif., and Skipwith Calvert of Lusby; and two grandchildren.