Thirty-two years ago, when Mary Steffy joined the board of directors of the Lancaster County Mental Health Association, Jimmy Carter was president and Andy Gibb topped the pop charts with “Shadow Dancing.”
Much has changed politically and musically in those three-plus decades, and so, too, has the perception and treatment of mental illness.
Steffy, who’s retiring June 29 as the longtime executive director of Mental Health America of Lancaster County (formerly known as the Mental Health Association), is a witness to those changes.
”I think there’s less of a stigma” associated with mental health issues, she said.
Instead, there’s the attitude of, “I have a mental illness, but my mental illness doesn’t have me,” Steffy said.
A career is born
A Lancaster County native who was the oldest of four siblings, Steffy, 65, grew up on a dairy farm that also raised corn and tobacco.
She attended Messiah College for a time and then got married at the age of 20.
While her husband was with Mennonite Voluntary Service, the couple moved away from the area for several years, coming back in 1970. Her two children, Christina and Eric, arrived in 1969 and 1971.
With her children in school, Steffy worked nights at the former Dempsey’s restaurant and then was employed by Stauffer Printing.
Steffy said she joined the board of directors of the Epilepsy Foundation of America because her daughter had a seizure disorder, which turned out not to be epilepsy.
Then someone suggested she become a board member of the Lancaster County Mental Health Association, which changed its name to Mental Health America of Lancaster County several years ago.
She did so in 1978 and was hired as an administrative assistant/executive secretary there in August 1981, setting in motion a career that would last more than 30 years.
Steffy was promoted to executive director of MHALC in January 1984.
The mission of Mental Health America of Lancaster County, which is a nonprofit, nongovernmental entity, is “to promote mental well-being for everyone, to make life better for people with mental and emotional illnesses,” she said.
“Every person has value,” Steffy said. “That’s what MHA is all about.
“If you value yourself, you’re much more likely to make good decisions.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, one of every two Americans will experience “some kind of mental health issue” over their lifetime, Steffy said.
Mental illness “is a brain disorder,” she said. “In many cases, it’s a chemical imbalance in the brain.”
Progress through the years
One of the major changes Steffy has observed over the decades is that individuals “do expect to recover,” she said.
Those who use mental health services today “help define what those services are,” Steffy said. New medications also have been developed.
People with mental illness are more likely to realize they aren’t alone, with persons from all walks of life in the same boat they are, she said.
Steffy also applauds the advent of “people first” language, in which blanket phrases such as “the mentally ill” are considered derogatory.
But funding for mental health services continues to be an issue, Steffy said. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed 2012-13 budget, which would cut the money counties get to provide mental health services by 20 percent, “is the worst … I’ve ever seen,” she said.
Distributing money to counties via block grants also could put mental health funding in danger, Steffy said.
“People who need services should have those services available,” she said.
Still, Mental Health America of Lancaster County continues to have a strong presence, Steffy said, whether it’s through community education, such as mental health first aid training; support groups and anger workshops; sponsorship of Alpha Clubs; monitoring mental health services in Lancaster County; or its Compeer Lancaster program, which recruits, screens and trains adult volunteers to spend time with someone who has mental illness.
“We collaborate with lots of organizations,” Steffy said.
MHALC, which has a contract with Lancaster County, also employs a client family advocate and a peer educator.
Its budget is about $340,000 annually, she said. Eighty percent of that used to come from the United Way, Steffy said. Now it’s 17 percent.
“There are some amazing people” at Mental Health America of Lancaster County, she said.
She also had high praise for staffers and board members of local mental health providers, such as the Lancaster County Office of Mental Health/Mental Retardation/Early Intervention. “We have a good working relationship with MH/MR.”
Mental Health America of Lancaster County doesn’t provide direct clinical services. “You can’t be an advocate if you’re a service provider,” Steffy said.
Joe Puskar, board president of MHALC, said he’s known Steffy about 17 years, dating back to when he was invited to join the board of directors.
Steffy has a way of encouraging people — even those who aren’t mental health professionals — to apply their skills and knowledge, said Puskar, senior vice president of customer support services at Lancaster General Health.
“She’s very willing to go out of her way to make people feel useful and valuable,” he said.
Steffy also succeeded in broadening perspectives on mental illness, explaining that it could be episodic — brought on by events — as well as chronic, Puskar said.
“Mary truly has made a significant difference,” he said.
Director of community health and wellness at Lancaster General Health, Alice Yoder has known Steffy since the 1990s, first serving with her on the Youth Violence Council.
Both agree that mental and physical health go hand in hand, she said.
Steffy has been a “constant voice” to connect larger problems to the topic of mental health, Yoder said. “She really got … people in the community to readily talk about mental health issues.”
In 1994, Steffy received the Pennsylvania Psychological Association Public Service Award.
To honor Steffy as she departs, MHALC is hoping to raise $100,000, of which $30,000 has been achieved so far.
She said it’s jokingly referred to as the “Hail Mary” campaign.
Her impending retirement is bittersweet, Steffy said. The Manheim Township resident is looking forward to it, yet “can’t imagine” not going into the MHALC office.
Steffy’s replacement, Jan Baily, began her duties last month. Baily is a former state executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (PA).
What comes next
Steffy hopes to enjoy her six grandchildren more when she retires. Daughter Christina lives in Eugene, Ore., with her husband, Kevin Prier, and their two kids, Isaac, 12, and Jocelyn, 9. An electrical engineer, son Eric and his wife, Becky, reside in Telford with their four children, Daniel, 13, Lauren, 11, Natalie, 9, and Sarah, 7.
Divorced from her first husband, Steffy also wants to spend time with her husband of three years, Ben Martin, who’s retired from the sales and marketing field.
She regularly Skypes with her daughter’s family in Eugene and hosts her son’s children one weekend a month. “My grandkids are very important to me,” she said.
After taking six to eight months off, Steffy said she’ll get involved in advocacy once again, “possibly prison- related.”
She’s been involved with Have a Heart for Prisoners in the Criminal Justice System, an organization that’s criticized Lancaster County Prison’s “culture of abuse” and called for the resignation of Warden Vincent Guarini.
After more than 30 years as warden, Guarini announced his retirement in April.
Forty-three percent of those incarcerated at LCP have mental health issues, Steffy said, but Have a Heart’s cause goes well beyond that.
The prison, Steffy said, is “dangerously overcrowded,” which makes life difficult for prisoners and guards alike. The situation is getting better, she said, “but it’s not improving fast enough.”
Penn Ketchum, a former director of the Office of MH/MR/EI, said Steffy is “one of the most passionate people I’ve ever worked with.”
“She will be missed greatly,” he said, when she leaves Mental Health America.
There are so many individuals who’ve been touched by Steffy, proving how effective she is “on an individual level and a systemic level,” said Ketchum, managing partner of Penn Cinema in Lititz.
“She speaks eloquently and gracefully” for people who need a champion.
Contact Sunday News staff writer Paula Wolf at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Disqus.blog comments powered by