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25 Years of Change

January 15, 2014

25 Years of Change

Interview with Beth Finnerty, Skyland Trail President and CEO

What is the significance of the 25th Anniversary of Skyland Trail?

What a milestone! Twenty-five years is a wonderful vantage point to reflect on our achievements thus far and to look forward to a truly exciting future. It is a time to celebrate the people who made Skyland Trail into the nationally recognized treatment center it is today, as well as our clients who have worked hard to achieve and sustain recovery. Our Board continues to challenge us to grow strategically to meet the changing needs of people with mental illness and to leverage new science to improve lives. This year, I am proud, awed and grateful to so many people who have been a part of our progress, as, together, we celebrate 25 years of changing lives, changing families and changing futures.

What are the three biggest changes you’ve witnessed in the mental health field?

Although still a challenge, the stigma surrounding mental illness has changed significantly since 1989. Twenty-five years ago, mental illness was something that was not talked about broadly. When Skyland Trail first opened, we questioned whether we wanted a sign in front of our building signifying we were a mental health treatment facility. Fortunately, that is no longer an issue today. Moreover, we are active in conversations about mental health in the media and online, and we invite the public to our campus for educational events throughout the year. Although we have come a long way in 25 years, stigma still exists and poses a barrier to treatment and recovery. We still have a lot of work to do. I think it is imperative for us as mental health professionals to be better communicators, to show the reality of who is affected by mental illness and the real possibility of recovery.

Similarly, governmental polices have changed for the better. Congress passed the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act in 2008, requiring insurance groups that offer coverage for mental health or substance use disorders to provide the same level of benefits that they do for general medical treatment. Now that we have regulations along with the Act, I believe, over time, access to care will improve.

Another big change for Skyland Trail is the demographics of the adults we treat. When we opened our doors, most of our admissions were people in their 40s and 50s. Skyland Trail was known as a mental health treatment center for older adults, particularly with schizophrenia. Today, while we still treat all adults ages 18 and older with a variety of diagnoses, our fastest growing demographic is 18- to 26-year-olds, with bipolar disorder or major depression. The increasing demand for specialized treatment for young adults is a trend not just here, but across the country. 

How has support from the private and philanthropic sectors been a factor in Skyland Trail’s growth?

Skyland Trail has grown very intentionally and purposefully. We have responded to the changing needs of our constituents through careful research and strategic planning. We have expanded not only our campuses and residential capacity, but also our evidence-based treatment services to better serve our clients. Guided by our Board leadership, we have grown at a rate that was ambitious and challenging but also responsible and manageable.

I am incredibly thankful that community support for mental health has improved, both at the national level for the broader cause and locally for our organization. When we opened our doors in 1989, we had a difficult time convincing the philanthropic community that they should give to a start-up mental health organization.  Today, nationally, and even globally, foundations and individuals better understand the tremendous impact they can have on changing lives and helping families by supporting nonprofit mental health organizations. 

I think Skyland Trail has proven itself as an important service provider and a leader in the field, and funders now are confident that their investment in Skyland Trail is a good one. After 25 years, it’s evident that we are good stewards of our resources and we follow through on our plans.  Our first capital campaign was $13.5 million; the next $11.5 million; and the campaign we are kicking off this year is $18 million. Once our current campaign is complete, the community will have donated over $40 million in capital funds to help us grow, and I am forever grateful for that.

What do you hope to see in the next 25 years for Skyland Trail?

In the next 25 years, I hope that the new parity laws reduce financial barriers to treatment. I hope that society sees mental illness as a public health issue, deserving the same attention and resources as diseases that affect other parts of the body. I hope that future generations of medical professionals pursue rewarding careers in mental health to help alleviate our current national shortage of providers.

I hope that we find a cure. Wouldn’t it be great to find treatments to “cure” bipolar illness, depression and schizophrenia? It would be wonderful if the disabling effects of mental illness could be eliminated completely, and Skyland Trail could help complete recovery through skills building, vocational preparedness and social integration.

Ultimately, I hope in another 25 years, the remaining stigma will have evaporated. I believe that society will have a better understanding of mental illnesses as brain disorders instead of weaknesses, and an appreciation for the strength and courage of those who overcome them. I hope people with mental illnesses feel free to disclose and discuss their diagnoses and still be treated with respect and regarded as valuable employees, friends and members of our community.

Above all, after 25 years, what is one thing you want people to know:

Treatment works. Recovery happens. I’ve seen it over and over again, for 25 years. I look forward to the future as Skyland Trail continues to inspire adults with mental illness to thrive.