Mental Health America’s Welcoming Conference

Mental Health America (MHA) gave me an incredible gift!

My invitation to support MHA’s eye-opening annual conference came as I was getting my life on track after a year of mental health treatment in south Florida. A few months ago, I sent a message to introduce myself to Paul Gionfriddo, the CEO, after an online search of organizations in the mental health field. I took a leave of absence from graduate school at American University after struggling with anorexia and suffering several psychotic breaks. My treatment was working, and I was about to get a master’s degree in health promotion management.

Mr. Gionfriddo took the time to respond to my shot-in-the-dark expression of interest in learning more about MHA. He was not only supportive, but also directed me to get in touch with his Chief of Staff. She helped me connect with the Director of Outreach, who told me about MHA’s annual conference and invited me to volunteer. An organization that didn’t know me gave me a chance to make a difference just like that.

It gets better!

When I visited MHA headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia in May, the Director of Outreach filled me in on my half-day volunteer responsibilities at the conference store and told me that I can attend the other two days of sessions for free. When I told her how much I enjoyed MHA’s Chiming In blog and that I am a writer, she directed me to the Associate Director of Digital Marketing who oversees it.

So, here I am!

The conference brought together a community of advocates, researchers, practitioners, and policy makers in the mental health field that I never knew existed. What struck me most about the attendees was the depth of their commitment. Many of them had first-hand experience with mental health challenges like me. They weren’t just going through the motions. In fact, they really cared!

The agenda was dynamic, well-focused, and conveyed a message of hope. The thread that tied the conference together was its focus on “Dueling Diagnoses,” which result from looking at one dimension of a person’s condition instead of treating the whole person. Speaker after speaker stressed the importance of identifying symptoms and characteristics of mental health conditions that may be present in individuals with physical, intellectual, and cognitive conditions and limitations such as cancer, autism, and Parkinson’s.

The message of MHA’s annual conference hit home in a very personal way. For many years, I felt pigeonholed with the diagnosis of Anorexia Nervosa. I bounced from one eating disorder treatment program to another with diminishing returns. I followed all the rules and my weight stabilized. However, the source of my haunting voices and painful feelings wasn’t addressed until I attended a treatment center that looked at me as more than a number on the scale.

MHA’s enlightened approach gives me hope for the cause of mental wellness and overall health. I feel really lucky to have found MHA and the new friends who have encouraged me to continue getting involved.


Laura Susanne Yochelson is a summa cum laude graduate of American University and recently received her Master’s of science degree in health promotion management. Recently, Laura spent a life-changing year in mental health treatment. She has written about her recovery experience in the blogs of Lifeskills South Florida, NAMI, and The AU Eagle.

Laura’s career goal is to help others with mental illness. Today, Laura writes with compassion and with hope. She distills to others the lessons she has learned from past mistakes and shares a story about gaining self-awareness. Instead of letting her life be defined by setbacks, Laura has learned to accept support and not judge her past.