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Planning meeting for mental health forum open to public

By Kim Walter

Local residents and agency representatives can give voice to the national dialogue on mental health taking place over the next several months.

One of the recommendations coming out of the taskforce led by Vice President Biden following the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut was for communities to engage in strengthening their mental health supports and services.

United Way organizations across the country have been asked to play a leading role in the dialogue on mental health, which was officially launched June 3 by President Obama. Obama asked for communities to engage in this important topic by the end of the calendar year and, where appropriate, build community plans for improving their mental health systems.

Although not required, the local United Way has decided to partner with NAMI Winchester - National Alliance on Mental Illness - to host a community forum on the topic in October.

That meeting's focus will be on mental health, the challenges people see in their neighborhoods and communities, and improvements they think could be made.

A planning meeting for interested groups and individuals will be held Tuesday at 9 a.m. at the United Way office in Winchester to discuss the community dialogue and identify questions to ask during the October meeting.

Joe Shtulman, president of the local United Way, said the organization has already invited a broad range of community leaders and agency representatives who have an interest in discussing the issue of mental illness.

He did note, however, that next week's meeting is not a forum, but a starting point for the community discussion.

"We'll be focusing on what information to look for at the October meeting, and maybe even form a few task forces to get as many voices and people involved as possible," he said. "It's very important to us to hear from everyday people and their experiences with mental illness."

Shtulman said next week's meeting is open to the public, but asked that individuals planning to attend would call the United Way office to give advanced notice.

In particular, Shtulman hopes to hear from people connected to the region's schools.

"This national dialogue is focused on dealing with the issues surrounding the Sandy Hook disaster," he said. "So we really want to identify issues in the community that deter people from accessing mental health services or problems that family members are having with getting help for their loved ones."

Shtulman recognized that there are many aspects to mental health services and needs, which is why he welcomes input from anyone who has a connection to the issue. He said the local United Way is a great facilitator for such a discussion, especially since it falls in line with the organization's community impact efforts.

"We do have a book to serve as a guide moving forward," he said. "But really, health is a key piece of our priorities, and I think it's very important that our community does what it can on this issue. We don't want a tragedy here."

To learn more about either meeting, call the United Way of Northern Shenandoah Valley office at 540-536-1610.

Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or kwalter@nvdaily.com

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