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By providing the tools to understand, Mental Health Association executive director introduces a bigger picture for everyday life

By Leslie Dinaberg, Noozhawk Contributing Writer | @lesliedinaberg | Published on 06.19.2011

It’s a rare and lucky person who finds a career considered to be “equally creative, fulfilling and challenging.” But “lucky” is exactly how Annmarie Cameron describes herself after 20 years as executive director of the Mental Health Association in Santa Barbara County.

“I love what I do,” said the sparkling-eyed blonde, whose youthful features and can-do attitude belie her two decades at the helm of a nonprofit mental health organization.

“It is so rewarding,” said Cameron. “The only other thing that I am more proud of are my girls (she and her husband, Mike, are the parents of two daughters, Morgan, 15, and Sophie, 12). But for me to have something that I’m this passionate about and this excited, I feel blessed.”

The private Mental Health Association does not offer clinical services.

“We really have three functions,” Cameron explained. “We have the recovery and rehabilitation, the housing and employment.”

The association’s residential services include the newest facility, at the organization’s headquarters at 617 Garden St. Called Building Hope, the project has 51 apartments — 38 of which are occupied by people living with mental health disabilities and 13 others that are designated for low-income downtown workers. The association also operates two smaller residential facilities, as well as a Housing Assistance Loan Program, which provides security-deposit expenses, and a Care Closet that provides clothing and essential personal items for those living with mental illness.

“It’s really the practical things,” said Cameron. “The second thing we do is education, and we have some great community education programs, including one that was just featured in Noozhawk, Mental Health Matters, the sixth-grade curriculum.”

Cameron’s youngest daughter has just finished sixth grade, so she is acutely aware of the opportunities at that age.

“Being an older mom, I can appreciate and step back and watch my kids as well as be with them,” she said. “I am really aware parenting is not supposed to be easy and fun all the time. So I think I’m pretty hard on both of the girls in that I want them to be self-reliant. … I’m trying to not just coddle and cater to them, and it’s not easy.

“I struggle with that at times; I think, am I too pushy? But that’s kind of my nature,” she laughed.

The Mental Health Association also offers family support.

“Because mental illness strikes in late adolescence or early adulthood, parents are often blindsided,” Cameron said. “I can’t tell you how many stories (I have) of moms and dads who talk about their children when they were younger and how bright and how creative and they were overachievers, and all of these really amazing kids.

“What is the most unfair part of this whole topic is this illness strikes right when the person is supposed to be becoming independent, and so family members are caught off guard. They are hoping that it’s drugs or alcohol or something that will go away. They don’t want it to be lifelong.”

When a child is born with a disability, the family learns to cope from the start, she added.

“This one just completely rattles the whole family,” she said. “You’re not ready and you’re confused by it. … Denial is normal. I would have that same reaction.

“If you have an 18- or 20-year-old who is bipolar or has schizophrenia, that person is an adult; they have a lot of rights — every right that you and I have. And that makes loving and caring for someone more complicated when the person is an adult. … Learning what a family member or a sibling or a loved one can do to be helpful and not hurtful is really important. The rest of the system overlooks the fact that the family becomes the de facto case managers, they provide most of the care and they are there in case of an emergency.

“We try to arm people with what they need to know: how to set up boundaries, how to plan for the future when they are gone. A lot of parents really worry about what is going to happen to their loved one when they are gone. So we have services that help with that.”

Cameron believes these education programs are what sets the Mental Health Association apart from some of the other nonprofit organizations that work in mental health.

The housing program is self-sustaining and all other Mental Health Association programs are free, with the exception of a new mental health first-aid program for those who cross paths in public with people with mental health issues.

“This is something I think I’m most excited about because it’s practical training,” Cameron said. “It’s intended for librarians and grocery store clerks and anyone in the community — kind of like CPR — where they want to learn how to help someone who is having a mental health crisis.”

Cameron said mental illness takes numerous forms.

“For every person who’s visibly obvious, there are at least two or three more in our community who are not obvious,” she said. “Many people encounter this issue and they feel helpless. They don’t know what to do; they don’t know what helps and what hurts.

“This mental health first aid gives you some very basic tools and some information for when you encounter someone who is having an anxiety attack or is depressed or whatever. It gives you some tools you can use that will encourage that person to seek help, or be helpful until professional help arrives if it’s an emergency.”

Cameron said the Mental Health Association hopes to become a resource for the community, in a similar way that the American Red Cross is.

“We want to make sure that people feel prepared and feel confident rather than intimidated and feel like they need to avoid this (people who are having mental health issues),” she said. “It all comes down to stigma. It all comes down to people’s first impressions or their first thoughts when they think about this.

“We’re trying to systematically dismantle stigma,” she said with a laugh.

Click here for more information on the Mental Health Association in Santa Barbara County, or call 805.884.8440. Click here to make an online donation to the Mental Health Association.

— Noozhawk contributor Leslie Dinaberg can be reached at[email protected]. Follow her on Twitter: @LeslieDinaberg.

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