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Bay Ridge Group Urges Better Understanding of Mentally Ill

A Bay Ridge-based organization that advocates on behalf of the mentally disabled started a new year of activity by electing a slate of officers to lead the group and made plans to promote greater understanding of people suffering from mental illnesses.

The Bay Ridge Mental Health Council met on Sept. 20 and invited Stephanie Giovinco, constituent services director for Councilmember Justin Brannan (D-Bay Ridge-Dyker Heights-parts of Bensonhurst), to administer the oath of office to the group’s newly elected executive board.

The council’s officers are: President Ralph Perfetto, Vice President Jane Kelly, Second Vice President Beverly Peare, Treasurer Marie Ortel and Assistant Treasurer Judy Collins.

Laura Terranova, a social worker at South Beach Psychiatric Center on Staten Island, was the guest speaker at the meeting, which took place at the Fort Hamilton Clinic at 8710 Fifth Ave. The clinic is affiliated with South Beach Psychiatric Center. South Beach operates seven outpatient mental health clinics in Southwest Brooklyn.

The council works closely with Terranova and with Pietro Lofe, manager of the Fort Hamilton Clinic.

The council’s purpose is to raise funding for programs in Southwest Brooklyn and Staten Island that treat mentally ill patients, according to Perfetto, who first became involved with the group in 1976. The programs are largely state-funded, but Perfetto said he council raises money for any extras that outpatients might need.

The council also works to raise awareness of the plight of mental illness in order to remove the stigma that is often attached to it, Perfetto said. Perfetto and other council members speak at schools and to community groups.

The stigma, and the fear of being labeled by society, keeps people from seeking treatment, he said.

“Depression is very common. And people are afraid to go get help. They feel ashamed. But they shouldn’t,” Perfetto told this newspaper. “At any point in time, approximately 20 percent of people in this country have some kind of mental illness. In bad economic times, that number jumps to 25 percent.”

Perfetto told the story of one young man who jumped out of a Fifth floor window in Bay Ridge and miraculously survived. A few years later, the young man helped Perfetto talk a suicidal woman into seeking help at South Beach.

Mental illness is common in the U.S., according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), which said one in five adults in the country live with some form of mental illness. In 2016, NIMH estimated that 44.7 million Americans over the age of 18 are mentally ill.

There are varying degrees of mental illness, ranging from mild to moderate to severe, according to NIMH.

Mental illness is more prevalent in women (21.7 percent) than in men (14.5 percent). Twenty-two percent of young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 have mental issues. For adults between the ages of 26 and 49, the figure is 21.1 percent. Fourteen percent of older adults (age 50 and above) are living with mental illness.

The council raises funds in a variety of ways, including hosting auctions where guests bid on prizes ranging from gift certificates for dinners in restaurants to bottles of wine.

“We also advocate for state funding for programs. The mentally ill can’t lobby for themselves, so we lobby for them. When there are cuts proposed, we fight to stop those cuts,” Perfetto told this newspaper. Perfetto has been politically active for years and is the Democratic district leader of the 64th Assembly District.

The Bay Ridge Mental Health Council was founded in the early 1970s in the wake of revelations brought to light by television journalist Geraldo Rivera who exposed the neglectful treatment of developmentally disabled children at the Willowbrook facility on Staten Island.

Leaders of the Bay Ridge Community Council, including Walter Kassenbrock, Joan Kipp, Rosemarie Russo, Vincent Rossi and Ursula Schmidt, began talking about the treatment of the developmentally disabled and those discussions expanded to talks on how to secure better services for the mentally ill.

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