NAMI honors advocates for the mentally ill

Michael S. Woody, CIT Champion of the Year with Handru at NAMI's Ray of Hope dinner.

With the rise of gun violence, drug overdoses and suicides in recent years, health care and law enforcement professionals have become more aware of the role of mental health in these issues. Awareness also is changing the way the general public views the importance of mental health treatment.

In Seneca, Sandusky and Wyandot counties, The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and the Mental Health and Recovery Services Board (MHRS) are at the forefront of efforts to educate citizens and support individuals and families affected by mental illnesses and substance abuse.

Sunday, NAMI recognized two individuals with its 17th annual Ray of Hope Awards at a banquet in Fremont. As the name indicates, the awards go to people who have benefited the local community with their contributions related to mental health. This year’s awardees are Mircea Handru and Lt. Michael S. Woody.

A graduate of Tiffin University, Handru said he came from Romania to the United States to play college soccer while earning a degree in business administration. He went on to earn a master’s degree before being hired as deputy director of Mental Health and Recovery Services for Sandusky, Seneca and Wyandot counties.

Initially, Handru said his focus was to manage the agency’s finances, which included budgeting, distributing funds, and keeping accurate records. Pleased with good financial audits, the executive director, Nancy Cochran encouraged him to take a broader role in MHRS activities.

“I got involved with services in Sandusky County. I got involved with helping pass the levy in Sandusky County, and I think Nancy saw something in me … and opened a lot of doors for me,” Handru said.

During her last two years before retirement, Cochran trained him in hopes that he would be ready to take on her responsibilities. Handru said he accompanied her to all the meetings she attended locally and in Columbus. In 2015, Handru was named executive director.

Melanie White, current executive director at NAMI SSW, remembers the day she met Handru, shortly after he became the deputy director of MHRS SSW.

“He saw this map of the world in our office, walked over to it and pointed to Romania,” White recalled. “He said, ‘That’s where I’m from.'”

Since then, Handru has become a U.S. citizen, and White said he continues to be an asset to MHRS. Under his direction, mental health counselors have been placed in nearly every school district in the three counties to help children deal with stress and trauma.

In the past, schools had been concerned mostly with controlling student behaviors, White pointed out. Now, educators have become more willing to help identify students with mental health components and to connect them with resources.

White said Handru’s efforts to secure stable funding have been a key to improving mental health services and treatment options, especially with the passage of the Sandusky County mental health levy.

“With his hard work, it became a reality,” she added.

“I do think, probably the biggest impact that happened in the last five or six years is passing the levies in all three counties,” Handru said. “We passed them all back to back, which is very unusual for us as a board.”

Sandusky County in particular had been without levy funding longer than the other two counties. In addition, Handru said MHRS was required to rewrite and resubmit all three levies five years ago. He said the agency was relieved when all passed, because money is crucial for improving programs and services.

Money also is a source of frustration, Handru said. Officials disbursing state and federal funds may not be in touch with the needs of rural Ohio. Grants and government money often come with unhelpful restrictions on how those dollars are to be used.

“It doesn’t matter how much passion you have. You’ve got to have the financial issues,” Handru said. “The levy is the only thing that allows us to plan at the local level — for local stakeholders and the community — the way we believe things should happen or are needed.”

For planning to be effective, Handru believes input and feedback from residents of the three counties MHRS serves is vital. At the same time, he says the behavioral health system “very complicated.”

Dealing with other agencies and making decisions requires objectivity, and he understands not everyone will agree with those decisions.

“Also, on and off the clock, I’ve got to realize that my action is going to somehow represent the board. I think it’s very important, as a director, to remember that.”

Handru said hiring and recruiting “qualified and dedicated staff” is a priority for him, as well as forming partnerships with other groups and individuals in the community. Mental health and addiction are difficult conditions to address, but a united effort can get things done, he said.

In 2017, Handru agreed to serve as fiscal chairman of the Executive Council of the Ohio Association of County Behavioral Health Authorities. The OACBHA includes the 50 mental health and addiction boards that oversee all 88 Ohio counties.

The executive committee works closely with directors and legislators who set policies at the state level. Handru says the additional meetings in Columbus make his schedule “very busy,” but he views it as an opportunity to keep his local board abreast of changes that might be coming.

“You’re ready to put one thing behind you and two more pop up,” Handru said.

More recent concerns include vaping, the dangers of prescription drugs laced with fentanyl, the resurgence of methamphetamine and possible marijuana legalization. Handru expects recreational use of marijuana to be an issue on the 2020 ballot.

He is encouraged by the agenda of Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, who is seeking more funding to provide services for mental health and addiction, including help for children in schools.

Handru spoke of two other “hot spots” that might involve his agency. One is the link between gun control and mental illness. The other is sentencing that has led to overcrowded jails and prisons.

“I think they want to keep more people in the community now. What that will mean – more people in services, more people in some type of treatment,” Handru explained.

In spite of job-related difficulties, the director said his rewards come when he sees individuals recover from “unimaginable pain.” Many are able to rebuild their lives thanks to the positive impact of MHRS. Handru believes recovery is a continuous process that requires ongoing support.

“It doesn’t matter if I face challenges or achievements, like this award. I’ve got to stay with my feet on the ground,” Handru said. “We truly need to put those clients and those families first.”

The Crisis Intervention Team program teaches first responders how to enforce the law and give medical treatment to people with mental illness. Levy funding has helped to provide CIT to more participants with the opening of the training center at Terra State Community College in Fremont.

Trained volunteer instructors from NAMI also take part in CIT.

NAMI SSW director Melanie White said, as of June 30, 2019, the CIT center has offered four training sessions with 90 graduates. Lt. Michael S. Woody, the person who initiated the first CIT program in Ohio, also was honored as CIT “Champion of the Year” at the Ray of Hope celebration. Now retired from the Akron Police Department, Woody has participated in the local training sessions and graduations.

“We are the first state in the country that has CIT in every county,” White said. “Woody has helped me develop my program.”