Heinz, Consumer and Family Liaison, Excited to Bring Her Perspective
January 1, 2009
By Elisabeth Kristof
Tammy Heinz has worked in the mental health arena for more than 15 years, providing mental health services, consumer training and workshops, employment coaching and job development. But it was not until she returned to Texas in 2000 that Heinz found her calling as a voice for mental health consumers.
In college, Heinz's fascination with the brain and psychology led her to obtain a bachelor of science degree in psychology from the University of Texas at San Antonio. Though she suffered from major depression and dysthymia at the time, she never recognized it in herself. "I dealt with those symptoms without knowing," she said. "Everything I studied seemed so far removed."
After graduation Heinz moved to Vermont, where she worked at a community mental health clinic. The progressive programs there laid the foundation for Heinz's belief in the value of peer support and community involvement for people with a mental health diagnosis.
But it was also in Vermont where Heinz reached the lowest point in her personal struggle with depression. Despite being diagnosed with depression and having suicidal thoughts, Heinz still didn't recognize herself as a mental health consumer. "I never told anybody in my professional life about my diagnosis," she said.
After years of trying to manage her illness on her own, Heinz became desperate for a solution. She decided to try medication, which, combined with therapy, worked quickly and effectively. Heinz also trained as a facilitator under Mary Ellen Copeland, author of the best-selling "Depression Workbook" and founder of the Mental Health Recovery and Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) program.
"This experience was so powerful that I wanted to share it with others," she said. When she returned to Texas to work for the Mental Health Association of Tarrant County in Fort Worth, she started a local WRAP program.
She quickly realized her community outreach would be more effective if she shared her personal struggles with depression. "It was important for people to see that a person they perceive as healthy and functioning has had a mental illness," said Heinz. "I knew I couldn't ask others to do this if I wasn't willing to myself."
Though Heinz told her story as a brief endnote to her presentation, she began to see tremendous results. "People would approach me afterward who wouldn't have before," she said. "It opened their minds and brought down barriers of intimidation." She began scheduling 90-minute sessions after presentations to discuss mental health issues and treatment options with audience members.
Heinz stayed at the association for eight years supervising community education, veterans' mental health and supported employment programs. One of her greatest accomplishments, she said, was developing a peer support program. Initially, the program matched community volunteers with consumers of mental health services, but volunteers were in short supply. Heinz was told that peer counseling wouldn't work, but she knew from her own experience how effective it could be and was determined to make it happen.
Undeterred, she created a peer-matching consumer support group where consumers support one another. The program has seen remarkable growth and success, expanding to include a gallery where consumers can display and sell their art and programs that empower and engage consumers in their communities.
Heinz began her new role as consumer and family liaison with the foundation in January 2009. Though she was sad to leave her friends and coworkers in Fort Worth, she is excited by her new opportunities to improve Texas mental health services. She believes the foundation is setting a new standard for the rest of the state to follow.
"Texas is ready for some big changes," said Heinz. "It is going to take a lot of work to get there, but I am excited to be a part of all that is going to happen by bringing the consumer perspective into the foundation's important initiatives."