Each year, millions of Americans face the challenges of living with a severe mental illness. The facts are staggering: 2.6 million are bipolar, 16 million live with major depression, and 42 million have anxiety disorders.
When a young Olean mother ended her own life after struggling for 10 years with bipolar disorder and depression, her mother, Barb Sweitzer, who works with the YMCA of the USA, knew something had to be done to address this disease.
“It is a challenge to find a balance between the state of depression and a manic state,” she said. “When a balance is found, people can lead a normal and productive life.”
Barb began the Jessica Sweitzer Memorial Fund, “Swizzy’s Cause,” named for her daughter Jessica, to address ways to help people struggling with mental health issues. She went to Jeff Alevy, CEO at the YMCA of the Twin Tiers, and Mari Howard, CEO of the ReHab Center who was also on the board of the YMCA at the time, to discuss the YMCA and ReHab Center partnering to hire a behavioral health care coordinator through “Swizzy’s Cause.”
While Barb has been working for two years to fund “Swizzy’s Cause” for a behavioral health care coordinator, the Rehabilitation Foundation stepped in to expedite the program by funding the position in the interim.
“It’s a perfect example of community agencies coming together to care for community and reach a greater impact,” Barb said.
”Swizzy’s Cause” blended the expertise of the ReHab Center with the social and exercise activities at the YMCA and hired Patty Blue in June.
“Through this position, both the Agency and the YMCA, are meeting people where they are,” Mari said. “Behavioral health is very complicated. We need to make it more accessible to people so they feel comfortable reaching for what they need, right where they are, rather than in a sterile mental health clinic.
“There had to be a way to reach people who are depressed. Barb said Jessica was at her best when she was working out three times a week at the Y.”
“People are at their best when they are healthy and have purpose.” Barb said, adding “Swizzy’s Cause” will also “educate the community about the effects of mental illness and offer strategies to make it easier for those with mental illness.”
“This joint effort combines the ReHab Center’s expertise with the friendly atmosphere of the Y to offer people in the community a welcoming, non-judgmental person to talk to,” Daniel Gayton, Director of Service Coordination at the ReHab Center, said.
Patty will provide mental health support to members, and take notice if someone stops showing up and reach out to that person.
“Patty can make referrals. She’s watching the whole person, incorporating the Y’s cultural wellness into the whole person,” Dan said.
With more than 20 years of experience in mental and behavioral health, Patty has the expertise to support people.
“This position is about building relationships with people. I’m here for someone who just needs a friend,” she said, adding “I have an open door where anyone can feel comfortable walking in without the stigma of walking into a mental health clinic. They soon find out there’s no judgement.”
On her first day, Patty had five referrals for people who were either feeling depressed or facing difficult life challenges.
“This position really brings together the Y and the ReHab Center,” Jeff Alevy, Regional CEO of the YMCA, said at the open house.
“The ReHab Center and the Y had the foresight and passion to make this vision a reality.”
Without precedent, this joint decision to bring onboard a professional with a behavioral health background is a unique step in supportive community health.
“We researched it and can’t find a single partnership anywhere like this,” Dan said. “It’s really innovative. When you look at the Y’s mission and the ReHab’s, they’re similar in the way we’re trying to create a culture of helping people.”