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Awards banquet will recognize people working in the trenches to help those with mental health issues

NEW PORT RICHEY — Sometimes the call comes from a lawyer, a judge or an employee at the jail who senses something is off. Sometimes the call comes from a loved one, often a concerned parent.

Vasilios "Billy" Major is the guy who takes those calls.

For 11 years, Major has worked as a disposition specialist for the Public Defender's Office, often scrambling to find suitable solutions for individuals with mental illnesses who land in the legal system.

"In many silly ways, I'm almost like a real estate agent," Major said. "I have to pair someone up with the best fix — find an appropriate setting for the person and then make sure it is something that the court is going to approve."

More often than not, the people he serves are at an "out of control" critical juncture. Many are adults who are either off their medications, or self medicating with illicit drugs or alcohol. He tries to reel them in by coordinating available services or perhaps finding an opening at a treatment center.

Not easy in a state where funding for the mentally ill is sorely lacking.

For seven years, Pasco County has funded a jail diversion program for the mentally ill, which helps some.

Unfortunately, it's often not enough.

Even so, Major, who also serves on the board of directors for NAMI/Pasco (the National Alliance on Mental Illness) and has twice been a recipient of the organization's Hope Award, dutifully plugs on.

On Monday, NAMI/Pasco will once again honor those in the trenches who have gone above and beyond at the ninth annual Mental Illness Awareness Week Education and Awards Banquet at St. George Greek Orthodox Church in New Port Richey.

Nominations for this year's honorees include an array of community members who have served to bolster the cause. Some work in law enforcement or in the media. One has championed a family member struggling with mental illness. Another is a retiree whose encore includes training volunteers to assist individuals and family members in times of crisis.

Winners will be revealed at the banquet, which will also highlight work being done in the local community as well as at Vincent House, a partner organization in Pinellas Park that helps its members learn how to manage their illness, find jobs and live independently.

U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis will be the keynote speaker.

Prevention, education and erasing the stigma attached to mental illness are primary missions of NAMI, said board president Grace Maselli.

"A big part of our message is that people do recover. It looks different for everyone. There's a lot of nuance. There's a lot of support required," said Maselli, who in the past has done advocacy work for the United Way in Philadelphia and Charlottesville, Va.

NAMI/Pasco is a buttress of sorts, sponsoring free monthly education courses and support groups for those in recovery, as well as for family members, friends and caregivers. There, people are able to share their stories with people who are not going to judge them, Maselli said.

It's not therapy in the clinical sense. "It's validation. It's support. It's sharing human experiences," she said.

While NAMI's efforts primarily have been in west Pasco, the organization has added support groups in Dade City and Wesley Chapel. NAMI is also stepping up work with military veterans and fostering a presence in local schools, with a focus on education and prevention.

"Giving people and their families a sense of dignity is really essential," said Maselli, who has a parent who is bipolar and a sibling with a severe drug addiction.

So is talking about the issues.

"I think people are really afraid of mental illness," Maselli said. "These are in many ways dreadful illnesses to have because they are very complex and so debilitating at times. And yet even with that, there is every reason to be hopeful and to believe in recovery."

Contact Michele Miller at mmiller@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6251.

The ninth annual NAMI/Pasco Mental Illness Awareness Week and Awards Banquet will be from 6:30 to 9 p.m. Monday at St. George Greek Orthodox Church, 9426 Little Road, New Port Richey. Tickets are $35 for NAMI members and $45 for non-members. Purchase tickets online at namipasco.org/events. For information about services offered by NAMI/Pasco and sponsor and volunteer opportunities, go to namipasco.org or call (727) 992-9653.

Awards banquet will recognize people working in the trenches to help those with mental health issues 09/30/15 [Last modified: Thursday, October 1, 2015 9:34pm]
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