Mental health care aided

HOW'S YOUR mental health? Thanks to a three-year grant from the Horizon Foundation to Family & Children's Services of Howard County, mental health care is closer to home and more affordable for residents living in southeastern Howard.

The nonprofit Family & Children's Services of Howard County, which is based in Columbia, opened a satellite office this week in Whiskey Bottom Shopping Center in North Laurel. It will be staffed four days a week by two counselors and administrative staff members, and it will offer services similar to those offered at its Columbia office.


Those services include mental health care for children, adolescents, adults and families; help for first-time parents through the Healthy Families program; in-home assistance for the elderly and disabled; and training and respite for their caregivers.

"Something like this is very much needed," said Rachel Qualls, director of Family & Children's Services of Howard County.


Qualls and another clinical social worker, Tracy Jordan, are counselors in the North Laurel office. Conversations with other nonprofit groups and a review of studies on the area - including a Health & Human Services Study in 2002 conducted by an independent consulting firm and funded by the Horizon Foundation - confirmed what they already knew.

"Residents want to stay in their communities and not travel to Columbia," where most of the support services for families is located, said Qualls.

The Rev. Paul Viswasam, pastor of First Baptist Church in Savage, sees the need for more comprehensive help for families in this area every Wednesday night when his church opens its food pantry to the hungry. "Most of them are broken families with children who aren't being cared for," said Viswasam. "They're facing all kinds of deprivation."

He estimates that 80 to 100 families are referred to the church each month by county agencies or other churches. People facing depression, alcoholism and other kinds of dysfunctional behavior or medical conditions often require more than what his church can offer.

A circuitous and lengthy bus route to services in Columbia is also a barrier for some who are physically challenged or are elderly, homebound residents, added the pastor. He is looking forward to teaming up with Family & Children's Services' new office to bring long-term help to them. "We can give them fish, but teaching them to fish is the greatest art," said Viswasam.

There have also been discussions about sharing the space with Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center, the Domestic Violence Center and Foreign-born Information and Referral Network (FIRN). "It's the next natural place to go outside of Columbia. We'd love to get someone down there," said Roy Appletree, FIRN's director.

"It's a historic event in that area," said Richard M. Krieg, Horizon Foundation president and chief executive officer. The grant meets the foundation's mission to improve health and well-being in Howard County and models the philosophy of "place-based philanthropy," Krieg said. It also enables Family & Children's Services to grow as it works toward sustaining the new office with other funding sources.

The foundation's interest in bringing affordable mental health services to the southern U.S. 1 corridor came about through discussions with the Southeast Horizon Council, a volunteer group of school, community and business leaders who meet regularly to discuss specific health and wellness needs in the North Laurel and Savage areas. The council is helping to promote the new office by being host of several meetings with business and civic leaders.


But before the office opened, Qualls and Jordan began meeting with area school principals and guidance counselors to talk about their services, including running support groups in the schools when needed.

"It's going to be a dynamic support," said Monterey Morrell, principal of Bollman Bridge Elementary School in Savage. "We need outlets for parents. Schools can only do so much with our guidance counselors and school psychologists," said Morrell, adding that the sliding-fee scale, based on income, would be particularly helpful to families with little or no insurance.

Having mental health is not just the absence of mental disorders such as major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder, four of the 10 leading causes of disability in the United States, reports a 1996 study from Harvard School of Public Health.

Mental health is defined as the successful performance of mental function, resulting in productive activities, fulfilling relationships with other people and the ability to adapt to change and cope with adversity, says the Office of the Surgeon General of the U.S. Public Health Service. But our mental health is assaulted every day with such events as violence, war, fear, bullying, learning disabilities, separation and divorce, changing homes and/or schools, and growing old.

Children especially suffer. A 2002 report by the National Institute of Mental Health stated that about 1.5 million children experience their parents' divorce each year. The study documented long-term preventive interventions and showed that the prevalence of mental disorders rose to 23.5 percent among teen-agers in families that did not receive active interventions, compared with 11 percent in families who received the most comprehensive help.

"It's something that can enhance your growth and development. Seeking help is a positive thing, not a negative," Qualls said.


"Our office can help clients identify their strengths, which can be used to help pull them through difficult situations," Jordan said. "We can provide a nonjudgmental environment and a source of hope."

Family & Children's Services' satellite office is at 9105-I All Saints Road. Information: 301-498-7509.