We're pleased to bring you an interview with Laura Gardner from Skills of Central PA! Laura oversees all of Skills' mental health programs, and has been in the mental health field since 1999. We recently sat down with her to discuss the ways she's seen the mental health field evolve, advice she has for people struggling with mental health challenges, and much more!
Interview with Laura Gardner from Skills
q. What is your job title?
a. My current job title is Clinical Administrator.
q. What is your background in mental health?
a. I have worked in mental health since 1999. I started out in a psychiatric facility hospital in Lancaster County and worked there for a while, then went on to work in an all-boys school for the youth.
Then I got my Master’s degree in Human Services and started working at The Meadows as a case manager. From there I went into outpatient therapy, and I was an outpatient therapist from 2005 up until I took this job at Skills last year in 2022.
q. Do you think stigma has improved since you started? Why?
a. I have seen it improve a lot since I started.
When I started in the mental health field, it was very much the what they consider the medical model, where the physician or the professional told you what the treatment was going to be, and there wasn’t much collaboration at that time. I’ve watched it change to be much more of a collaborative treatment for folks.
With mental health and stigma in particular, I’ve seen that change a lot. In the past, people didn’t talk about their mental health, but now, we’re at a point where people feel very empowered to talk about it, and other people respond to that. It’s been a very positive shift. Not to say there’s not still some stigma, because there is, but in the years that I have worked I’ve watched it really change for the positive.
q. Has anything else changed?
a. The biggest thing that I’ve seen is the collaboration between mental health providers and the people they support. Today, people are getting diagnosed, knowing what their diagnosis is, understanding why they’re being prescribed a particular mediation. Just people being more empowered. When I first started in the mental health world, that wasn’t always the case.
There has also been a shift where more people with mental illness are working in and integrated into their communities. And that shift has really been huge, I think.
q. Why is mental health awareness important?
a. As a therapist, I think mental health has two pieces. There’s a situational component for some folks, where something happens in someone’s life, and then that results in mental health issues for them. And there’s the genetic component, where someone has a family history of mental health issues. Either way, I think mental health is something that every human being deals with on some level. And I think it’s important for people to be able to recognize when they are struggling, and to know how to get the support and treatment and help that they might need.
q. What are some important factors for recovery?
a. I think one of the most important factors for recovery is self-identification–people identifying what is going on with their own mental health, and seeking help when they need it. A lot of times, the process of getting help starts with a person’s Primary Care Physician, who then directs them to other services.
And the second biggest, which goes hand-in-hand with the first, is support. Whether that’s family support, community support, support through a caseworker, peer support worker, or therapist or a psychiatrist. Just having a support network to know when something is wrong or to help out when someone needs a little support with something.
q. How would you suggest a person explain their diagnosis to their employer, family friends, and people they know?
a. I tell people to decide how much information to share based on their relationship. You may tell your close family and friends a whole lot more about your diagnosis and symptomology and things that you are experiencing than you would share with your employer. You might tell your employer enough so that you can get accommodations that you might need for the position you are working. But you may not go into great detail about symptoms and things like that. I think it is based off of the relationship that you have with the individual that you are talking to.
q. Are there any resources (book, videos, websites, etc.) you would recommend to someone interested in mental health?
a. There is some really good stuff on SAMHSA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website. There are a lot of Federal websites out there as well. Like for LGBTQ+ folks, the Trevor Project is a really big website that provides a lot about resources and support for folks who are struggling with mental health.
Your County mental health offices tend to have a lot of resources; so those are a great place to look. YouTube has some really good videos and talks from people struggling with mental health.
q. Are there any hobbies or coping activities you would recommend to someone suffering?
a. Absolutely. One of the biggest things is, especially when you are struggling with depression, the last thing you feel like doing is moving. We always tell people to exercise. But when you tell someone to exercise, that’s a big word that can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. So, I encourage them to find things that they enjoy. If someone really likes dancing, look on YouTube and find some things there that you enjoy. I encourage people to find an activity that they really like and to try to do that activity a couple times a week.
Another one of the things I encourage people to do is to change their environment. Get outside, get in the sunshine, even if it’s just sitting for ten minutes in the sun. This tends to help all of us feel a little bit better.
I definitely encourage people to utilize hobbies, because even when you don’t feel like doing something, when you walk outside and you sit for 10 minutes in the sun, that generally just helps you to feel a little bit better.
q. How common is mental illness in our County? Has it increased? How common is recovery?
a. I would say that mental illness is pretty common in our county. I don’t think that’s any different than any other place in the country.
Has it increased? I think yes. There are some things that have caused it to increase, such as the pandemic really isolating a lot of people.
I think social media is another area that really increases mental illness for folks who are already struggling, because when people look at, say, Instagram or Facebook, and see everybody else’s lives and the things they are doing, and they evaluate themselves based off of that, I think that that can increase mental health symptoms for people. Social media makes them view life through a very small lens, and they look at what other people are doing and feel somehow that they’re not at the same standard. For kids, it’s also very easy to bully people via social media. I’ve seen that happen quite a bit.
q. And then how common is recovery?
a. I think recovery is very common when people seek support and help.
As a therapist, I would recommend therapy because I have seen in the past how helpful it is to be able to talk to someone else. And as strange as it sounds, talking to a stranger that doesn’t know anything about you is very helpful. To have somebody else to look at what’s happening in your life and to help support you in that way.
So, I think for people who reach out and get support, recovery is very common.
People can and do recover from mental health challenges, and they move forward to live relatively normal lives just like everyone else.
q. How would you define recovery?
a. I would define recovery as the energy and willingness that takes to improve, if that makes sense. In my mind, a person has to be willing to put themselves out there when they recognize something is wrong. Sometimes just therapy, sometimes it’s just having a peer to talk to, sometimes it’s medication and therapy. There are all different kinds of combinations of things that can go together with recovery, but I think it’s the willingness to just take that first step.
q. Is there anything you would say to people struggling with their mental health?
a. I would say that the biggest thing is that people can and do recover from mental illnesses.
I do a lot of support for suicide prevention. And it's very disheartening to me that we lose people to suicide, because there is support and there is help.
There are challenges along the way, and it might take you a little while, but you just have to keep moving forward.
q. What is your favorite part about working in the mental health field?
a. My favorite part is watching people achieve recovery, and change and grow from where they were when you first met them, or where they first came into the mental health field and started to get services. Seeing them grow and recover and go off to live relatively normal lives. I think that’s amazing to watch.
If you or a loved one are struggling with mental health, please check out our list of service providers here, or our crisis resources page here.
Remember that there is no wrong way to start your recovery journey -
any service provider listed on our website will be pleased to help you!
If you don’t know where to start, reach out to Centre County’s MHIDEI at
(814) 355-6786 and ask for Mental Health Intake services.