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May sheds light on National Mental Health Month

“Individuals experiencing mental illness have been so denigrated throughout history … It’s hard to believe our society’s sensibilities have evolved to where we now have a government sponsored National Mental Health Month,” observes Dr. Janet Kelley, Vice President of Clinical and Quality Services at Keystone Human Services.

Historians and sociologists confirm, since the founding of our democracy (and even earlier), individuals experiencing mental illness have been stigmatized, persecuted, and up until recent times, strategically isolated from normal society.

Dr. Kelley continues, “Considered a danger to themselves as well as others, those labeled “lunatic” were carted off  without legal protection to lives of deprivation in stark and often inhumane institutions.  I know.  I was there … 

As a professional at Harrisburg State Hospital in the early ‘70s, I witnessed the dire conditions with large numbers sleeping in one small room, people crowded into day rooms, poorly dressed in sack-like clothes.  There was no allowance for personal dignity in bathrooms and showers, let alone the basic human yearning for family, home and community. Those of us who co-founded Keystone became convinced there had to be a better way.” 

In recent decades, that “better way” has been created for people experiencing mental illness as well as other disabilities. This was largely due to aggressive advocacy by pioneering organizations like Keystone, which over time, were able to inspire greater sensitivity, vision and the full support of the Commonwealth.

Comments Michael Grier, Chief Executive Officer of Keystone Community Mental Health Services (KCMHS), “After years of lobbying, organizations like ours were given the opportunity to prove that individuals who struggle with mental illness can successfully embrace community life when given the proper support … and that is precisely what we’ve done and continue to do each day.”

Records now indicate that with very few exceptions, the thousands transitioned out of Harrisburg State Hospital by KCMHS and like organizations are now living in their own homes, holding down jobs, going to school and leading productive lives.

How was it that Keystone was able to make this work? 

Grier credits Keystone’s inclusive values, unflagging determination, and an innovative treatment approach called “The Recovery Model.”

“The Recovery Model” builds upon the insight and experience of those already on the road to recovery, “continues Grier. “Looking back, perhaps our most critical decision was to employ an individual who was in Recovery to join our agency’s leadership team.  For the past several years, this individual has provided us with an unprecedented understanding of the complexities of living life with a mental illness … And this insight has enabled our mental health experts to fine-tune Keystone’s support services to be more responsive than ever.”

Beyond their policy input, Keystone also trains and compensates successful Recovery participants to provide practical supports to those who are just entering the program.  Referred to as “peer support,” this approach works to strengthen each individual while it implicitly validates the peer support role in the therapeutic process.

Continues Grier, “There is a very powerful empathy and a feeling of ‘being understood’ that evolves within these relationships.  Imagine how inspiring it must be for an individual to observe the success and respect enjoyed by their Recovery Specialist … This is someone who’s been in their shoes and understands their innermost struggles.  Over time, the participant starts to believe that kind of dignity could be theirs.”

The concept of recovery is based on the belief that people can and do get better.  The role of the provider is becoming a partnership with those individuals that are supported by Keystone.  The ultimate goal of any service provider should be to prepare the individuals to live in society with non-paid supports.

With Keystone’s demonstrated success in serving this population, two more state hospitals are scheduled for closing in the coming months, and peer support is now being embraced broadly by other human service organizations across America.

Concludes Dennis Felty, President and co-founder of Keystone Human Services, “Since our inception in 1972, we’ve learned that serious disability … including mental illness, autism, intellectual and physical challenges … will touch almost every American family.   We’ve also come to understand that disability is not an unfortunate event that happens to some people, but it is an inherent aspect of the human experience …

The Recovery Movement works because it was built on becoming stronger as a result of each person’s decision not to be a victim.  A living example of Keystone’s vision, each individual’s recovery journey makes an important contribution to building a world where the gifts of all persons are recognized and valued.”

Even though mental illness is an inherent aspect of the human experience, Keystone Human Services and other like organizations are still challenged to fundraise for a human condition that continues to be stigmatized even in our enlightened culture.

To learn more about Recovery, Family Living, making donations or volunteering, visit  An agency of Keystone Human Services, KCMHS is headquartered in Harrisburg with over 200 employees and service for more than 900 people in Dauphin, Cumberland, Perry, and Franklin/Fulton counties in Pennsylvania and in part of Maryland. 

Keystone Human Services (KHS) brings approximately $125,000,000 in services to communities world-wide and employs over 3,000 people who are dedicated to supporting individuals with autism, intellectual disabilities and mental illness as well as vulnerable children and families throughout Pennsylvania, Connecticut, parts of Delaware and Maryland as well as regions of Moldova and Russia. Keystone also consults with human service entities in Azerbaijan and South Africa.

KHS and its family of agencies are dedicated to creating an environment where all people, regardless of background and ‘ability,’ can grow, make choices, and be valued and contributing members of their community.

Dedicated to “advancing the human spirit,” inquiries about KCMHS and Keystone’s entire spectrum of community based services are welcome. Contact Mike Grier, Executive Director at (717) 558-8450 or mgrier @

ChocolateBall 2018


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