May is Mental Health Awareness Month, but Stephanie Foran works toward its goals year-round. A native of New York, Foran, 70, began volunteering with Friends of Loudoun Mental Health shortly after moving to Middleburg with her family in 1986.
She has served on the organization’s board of directors since 1987, and is currently its president. The nonprofit organization has provided support and services to people with mental illness in Loudoun County since 1955. It works in partnership with the county Division of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services to increase awareness of mental health issues and provide assistance to Loudoun residents with mental illnesses who are in critical need of financial support.
Foran recently met with The Washington Post to talk about the organization.
Do you have a background in the mental health field?
Just a passion for it. When I had my daughter, I decided that I wanted to be a stay-at-home mom, and I wanted something to do beyond just being a mother. And so I started working on drug and alcohol-abuse prevention among adolescents. My father was an alcoholic, so I was sensitive to what drug addiction can do. I have a nephew who has a mental illness. And that all just jelled around the time that I met people from Mental Health and started doing volunteer work. It’s really passion-driven.
What does your organization do?
The Friends [of Loudoun Mental Health] is truly a phenomenal organization of all volunteers. The majority of them have family members who have mental illness. That’s what brings them to the table. So they’re driven by passion and driven by determination to help those with mental illness recover. Our program area is broken into three areas: advocacy, education and awareness . . . and then we have our assistance programs.
What kind of assistance does the organization provide?
We provide monetary assistance through our partnership with the Division of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. And the assistance comes by two program names: A Place to Call Home, the rental subsidy program; and A Helping Hand, which is one-time money. When you rent an apartment, you need a deposit for the rent. To turn your utilities on, you need a deposit for your utilities.
Then we also have a representative payee program. The Social Security Administration many times requires people who are severely disabled to have a representative payee to manage their finances before they’ll be given their stipend. At that point in their lives, being disabled, they truly can’t manage . . . can’t balance a checkbook, don’t keep track of paying their rental bill or telephone bill on time. So we have a pool of volunteers who do that.
How does a place called home work?
A Place to Call Home provides monthly rental subsidies to Loudoun residents who are disabled by mental illness, who are currently in treatment with the Loudoun County Division of Mental Health, who are able to work on their wellness issues and are committed to trying to achieve recovery. We provide them with a rental subsidy, usually up to $350 a month, and we do it in six-month increments. Now, that can be renewed. We don’t meet these people face-to-face, because the mental health system provides all the care. We really work behind the scenes. Stable housing is the cornerstone to somebody being able to work on a mental health issue. Imagine if you had a severe mental illness and you were living out in the woods. Your whole focus would just be on survival. You wouldn’t have that time where you could focus on trying to recover. The people we work with, because of the support services they get from Mental Health, they have a plan in place. They have goals they want to meet. They’re held accountable to achieve their goals. So it’s not just a handout.
[We helped a] man in his early 40s who had a total psychotic break. Three months later, he found himself on a fishing boat down in Florida, called his family and said, “I’m not quite sure where I am or what happened.” He’s fortunate that he had a very loving and supportive family. They got him back up here, and he’s spent 15 years trying to put it back together. So from high functioning and really achieving to his complete break, he had to relearn a lot of his basic skills in order to maintain himself. So it can happen. It’s not something you wish for.
What are your top priorities? Our top priority always is trying to raise funds to support A Place to Call Home. That is our primary focus, because those people really do rely on us to have a place to live. Otherwise, they’ll be on the street. By the time they get to us, they’ve exhausted all the other county resources. They’ve gone through all the other agencies, and so we really are their last hope.
Does the Friends group receive any money from the county?
The last two years we’ve been really lucky. [From] the regional organization money, we’ve gotten $15,000 two years in a row, which has just been an absolute lifesaver. I look at that as a good partnership because the people we help — they’re not living on the street . . . the county’s not paying for them in some other way. Because they’re stable, and then they can achieve recovery and they can go back to being solid citizens, paying their taxes, [getting] a job, the whole thing. It’s a good investment.
When we have an incident of mass violence, such as the shootings in Connecticut, we hear a lot of talk about mental health issues. What are your feelings about that?
Our primary response would be . . . advocating for more mental health services and generating better awareness that recovery from mental illness is possible. Because of the stigma attached, if someone in your family is mentally ill or you’re mentally ill, and the stigma prevents you from seeking help, then that can lead to tragedy, whether it’s a shooting at a school or your own suicide. So I think that our main stance would be the expansion of mental health care and awareness that services are available.
It’s not an easy topic, but I think we would all agree that people who are seriously mentally ill should not have access to weapons, for their own protection and for other people.
Are people more aware of mental health issues than they used to be?
Yes, people are more aware. But there’s still not . . . they don’t feel the same level of sensitivity and compassion or a desire to help as they might for leukemia or cancer. Breast cancer, for example, is a great example of how people rallied around that cause, and rightly so. And then with the shootings in Connecticut, there’s a lot more mental health talk, but not necessarily understanding.