Q & A with Melinda C. DuBois

“Our work is more important than ever,” says new executive director at Mental Health Advocates of WNY

By Michael J. Billoni

DuBois
DuBois

‘More than 50% of Americans now meet the clinical definition for an anxiety disorder or depression. We are experiencing a global crisis. And we are also experiencing collective trauma, the loss of loved ones, the loss of employment, the racial reckoning of generations of systemic racism.’

Melinda C. DuBois began as executive director of the Mental Health Advocates of WNY (MHA) Sept. 1, following Ken Houseknecht’s retirement after nine years in the position. DuBois, who came to the MHA from Planned Parenthood of Central and Western New York, brings 25 years of experience managing multidisciplinary health and human service organizations. The MHA was founded in 1962, has a $2 million operating budget and serves more than 25,000 individuals annually with 25 full time and over 20 part time staff and volunteers.

Q: What are your goals and vision for MHA as you begin as its executive director?

A. As I learn more about this wonderful agency that has been in existence for over 50 years, it seems clear that our work is more important than ever. My goals and vision include increasing the number of lives we impact by providing assistance in navigating the mental health system, referrals to clinics and mental health professionals, workshops, support groups and community education training. We are in the schools, in the hospitals, and in the courts providing support and guidance for our community members who are challenged with living with mental illness. I would like to raise awareness and expand our focus on prevention, early detection, and wellness. It’s incredible that we provide emotional skill building for preschoolers. When we start talking early about emotional well-being and the fact that we will all struggle at times, we decrease the stigma associated with mental health needs, and create space for getting help. Ultimately, when our community members think about mental health, I want them to immediately think about Mental Health Advocates. Who should I call when I am not sure what the answers are? Call us. We will listen with compassion, and we will help find the right resources.

Q: How concerned are you and your peers in the mental health field about government funding cuts towards mental health programs?

A. Although MHA is currently in a strong financial position, it is amazing to me that we are talking about funding cuts at this time. We all agree these are unprecedented times. Prior to this COVID-19 pandemic, we would say that one in five Americans experience a mental illness in any given year and more than half will go untreated. A recent study by the National Institutes of Health states that more than 50% of Americans now meet the clinical definition for an anxiety disorder or depression. We are experiencing a global crisis. And we are also experiencing collective trauma, the loss of loved ones, the loss of employment, the racial reckoning of generations of systemic racism. Now more than ever, funding should be increased for the vital services we provide. How, as a society, can we turn our backs on the basic needs of our struggling friends and families? We need an increase in funding, not cuts.

Q: What is your background in the mental health field and what are your strengths as a team leader?

A. I received my master’s in social work and started my career as a mental health counselor. Throughout my career, I have stayed connected to the mental health field through my involvement on boards such as Crisis Services and Horizon Health, and through my work on a college campus leading the health and counseling center. My strengths as a team leader include a strong drive to help my team excel and grow, with compassion and love, with mutual respect, and accountability. I am right there with my team. We do this work together.

Q: Talk about the MHA’s new office space environment and how it will benefit local community members.

A. The WNY Human Services Collaborative, located at 1021 Broadway, will provide a wide range of health and human services to vulnerable and marginalized individuals and families living in or near the city of Buffalo, through the development of a co-located, multi-service entity. Our goal is to improve the functioning of organizations and systems through development and implementation of innovative programming specifically designed to improve the health and well-being of participants

Q: What do you see for the future of Mental Health Advocates?

A.  I see us growing, expanding our youth and family advocate services to more hospitals and behavioral health providers, and being an important resource for our community. As we, as a society, decrease stigma, normalize mental health treatment, and recognize the impact of childhood and generational trauma on our fellow citizens, the work of the MHA will be even more vital and necessary.

Editor’s note: Anyone experiencing a mental health issue for the first time, call 716-886-1242 and for more information, visit www.mhawny.org.