By Tom Ciuba
With the Mental Health Alliance reporting LGBTQ+ individuals as 2.5 times more likely to seek mental health programs and services than non-LGTBQ+ people, organizations that support mental wellbeing serve a vital role in helping LGBTQ+ community members navigate the stresses and anxieties that can come with the current political climate. Farmington-based Mental Health Connecticut (MHC) is one such organization offering services across Connecticut.
MHC’s roots date back to early last century. Connecticut native and Yale University graduate Clifford W. Beers founded the Connecticut Society for Mental Hygiene (which eventually became Mental Health Connecticut) in 1908 and co-founded the National Committee for Mental Hygiene (which evolved into Mental Health America) in 1909 after witnessing firsthand the healthcare system’s inability to offer effective and humane care for mental illness. Beers had spent three years in several Connecticut hospitals shortly after experiencing his first manic episode while working as a Wall Street financier.
“As a wealthy, college-educated white man, Beers came from tremendous privilege,” says Luis Pérez, who celebrated a decade as MHC’s president and CEO this past January, “but that privilege was of little service to him once he began experiencing mental health distress. Today, we recognize the universality of mental health matters and work to promote individual recovery and wellness through an array of programs and initiatives.”
While MHC is not a direct provider of clinical mental health services, the organization of roughly 220 employees partners with individuals, families and communities to create environments that support long-term health and wellness through a diverse service menu, including:
Residential services that assist people living with mental health conditions in preparing for, obtaining and maintaining independent living within their communities. This includes individual in-home care to promote engagement with family members and community involvement, as well as Robinson House located in West Hartford, which provides assistance to members of the deaf and hard-of-hearing community;
Employment and education services to help those with mental health conditions and disabilities secure work or gain equitable access to education;
General wellness initiatives, including at MHC’s Independence Center in Waterbury, which offers daily workshops that help individuals with mental health conditions build skills and confidence to achieve personal goals; Deaf Rec, a club that brings people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing together for recreational activities such as museum trips, lunches and dinners, and local fairs and festivals; and artistic programs such as Write On!, Art of Wellbeing, and GROW, a year-round horticultural therapy program;
Business coaching through the MHC Collaborative, which counsels small- to-mid-sized companies on fostering psychologically and culturally safe workplaces. The Collaborative’s custom workshops tackle stress management; diversity, equity, and inclusion; effective communication and mitigating burnout, among other topics. There are also certified trainings, such as Mental Health First Aid, which guides participants through finding help for a coworker or someone else experiencing a mental health crisis; and
Advocacy with elected officials to promote policies that fight discrimination and help people achieve mental wellness. In addition, the organization advocates for those who experience mental health conditions to break down stigmas by sharing their personal stories.
Historically, MHC has found that not everyone chooses to identify their sexuality upon intake, while less than one percent chose to identify as either gender non-binary or transgender in 2022.
“All of our services are guided by industry best practices, and our direct care staff continually receive high marks for their ability to create inclusive spaces,” says Suzi Craig, MHC’s chief strategy officer. “Overall, MHC is seeing a growing number of program participants share their identity and preferences, due in large part to the organization’s culture and commitment to creating safe environments.”
That being said, roughly 25 percent of those seeking MHC’s services and programs for deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals have identified as LGBTQ+. One such individual is Kaja Hanson.
“Several years back while living home with my parents, I began suffering from undiagnosed bipolar disorder,” Kaja recounts. “My dad, a psychologist, located a deaf counselor working at Capitol Region Mental Health Center. After a few sessions, she referred me to MHC’s Robinson House program, a temporary stay group home for deaf adults with mental health issues who need help learning independent living skills.”
Kaja lived at Robinson House for 10 years. “It’s longer than most people live there,” Kaja continues, “but I have particular ongoing challenges.”
Throughout her stay at Robinson House, Kaja also participated in MHC’s art program as well as the Deaf Rec social club.
“MHC is an excellent organization, and I have encountered only respect from its employees,” says Kaja. “Not only did Robinson House staff respect my name and pronouns as a transgender person, but they actively assisted me in locating transition-related services. Overall, I am doing vastly better than before I crossed paths with MHC and started living at Robinson House. I would highly recommend the program to deaf adults who are struggling with self-care or other life-maintenance tasks.”
Robinson House also helped Kaja locate and enroll in programs for continued service once she left the home, such as the Mental Health Waiver program that can help clients meet daily living needs, including keeping up with personal hygiene as well as cleaning and other household chores.
“Kaja taught our staff a lot about the complicated process of transitioning, so we now have the experience to support another person going through a similar transition while utilizing our services,” says Amelia Saunders, MHC’s director of residential services.
Recognizing the importance of continuously building trust among Connecticut’s LGBTQ+ community, MHC has taken deliberate strides over the past few years to demonstrate a specific commitment to supporting LGBTQ+ individuals.
In 2020, MHC launched the Equity, Social Justice & Antiracism (ESJA) Advisory Committee comprised of volunteer staff members from across the state. The group hosted an LGBTQ+ History, Health & Inclusion seminar as part of its monthly educational programs and created a resource and advocacy guide for the LGBTQ+ community.
After the November 2022 mass shooting at Club Q in Colorado on Transgender Day of Remembrance, MHC issued public support for the LGBTQ+ community, stating that the organization “stands in compassion and solidarity with the victims, their families and the LGBTQ+ community” and that “violence, discrimination and hatred toward this community cannot be ignored or written off as anything other than what it is, a hate crime.” (The organization also released statements in response to mass shootings in Atlanta in March 2021 and in California this January, to the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, and to police brutality against George Floyd in 2020 as well as Tyre Nichols earlier this year.)
MHC also partners with IDONTMIND, a program of Mental Health America with international reach. IDONTMIND inspires open dialogue around mental health and promotes free support resources for anyone in need. In fall 2023, MHC and IDONTMIND will once again partner to offer a Write On! class specifically for LGBTQ+ adults ages 18-25 in Connecticut and beyond. Write On! helps participants hone writing skills to become powerful storytellers. The course is sponsored by Macy’s, which is also supporting MHC to hire an artist to create a color therapy-focused Pride mural in Connecticut this summer.
Through MHC’s ongoing Let’s Face It campaign, the marketing team has highlighted several members of the LGBTQ+ community and is spotlighting LGBTQ+ people during Pride Month.
“This particular campaign centers on visibility of individual challenges, promoting community support as well as the idea that a journey to mental wellbeing does not have to be faced alone,” says Craig.
In addition, MHC’s annual cultural humility training for staff and board of director members will focus on LGBTQ+ inclusion in 2023, with the goal of making the organization an LGBTQ+ Safe Zone.
“MHC strives to meet people wherever they are on their personal mental health journey and recognize their individuality, experiences and unique cultures,” says Jacquilyn Davis, who was hired as MHC’s first DEI and engagement coordinator in June 2021. “Whether making public statements to formalize philosophies that have been ingrained in our organizational DNA since Day 1 or taking formal action on social justice matters via ongoing trainings, assessments and outreach, we are working diligently to ensure more inclusive practices that strengthen our effectiveness and better enable full recovery for those who seek our services.”
To learn more about MHC and all of its programs and services, visit mhconn.org.