ALBANY — When Pastor Daniel Simmons and the leaders of Mount Zion Baptist Church decided to turn the church’s focus on mental health issues that plague the community by convening a mental health ministry, they asked for guidance from the mental health community.

The initial fruit of that collaboration was on display Saturday at the church during the Mount Zion Mental Health Awareness Community Fair.

An impressive roster of speakers joined more than 20 vendors in an event that culminated with the reading of a joint proclamation by Albany Mayor Bo Dorough and Dougherty County Commission Chairman Chris Cohilas recognizing Mental Health Awareness Month in the city and county.

“When Pastor Simmons told us we wanted to focus on mental health awareness, not just at Mount Zion but throughout the community, we talked with Gail Davenport (a member of the Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities Advisory Council for Region 4) about the possibility of bringing mental health leaders together to discuss ways to address the issue,” Mount Zion Mental Health Ministry Director Kim Dandridge said. “It evolved into this event today.”

Among the speakers at the community fair were Behavioral Health Regional Services Administrator Jennifer Dunn, Aspire Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities facility counselor Daniel Fleuren, Albany Police Chief Michael Persley, Dougherty County School System Superintendent Kenneth Dyer, Pastor Krystal Heath with Albany Area Primary Health Care, Ashley Hall with The Sparrow Center and Dandridge.

Bill Fazekas, a substance abuse case manager with the Dougherty Superior Court Mental Health/Substance Abuse Treatment Court Program, said that program’s efforts to cut recidivism is having a positive impact in the community.

“Judge (Stephen) Goss started the Mental Health/Substance Abuse Court back in 2003, and it’s become a model for all over the country,” Fazekas said. “I know it works, because I was a participant. I am a recovering addict who went through the program in 2009. I volunteered for the program and have been an employee for the past six years. I’ve walked the path; I know what (participants) are going through.”

Fazekas said the court program and other agencies in southwest Georgia are starting to make a difference.

“You have agencies like Aspire and NAMI in Albany that are having an impact,” he said. “But, as Judge (Victoria) Darrisaw (the program’s presiding judge) has said, this area of Georgia has a shortage of mental health professionals and particularly has problems recruiting and retaining psychiatrists.”

Dunn, who noted that a service for “988” calls — which, like 911, will be used for mental health emergency calls — will soon become available across the state, said events like the one Saturday at Mount Zion must become an important part of the mental health care conversation.

“What I’d like to see happen is to normalize mental health issues that we confront, and the way you normalize something is to talk about it,” she said.

Dandridge said that the kickoff event for the Mount Zion ministry would be followed in July with a minority mental health program and a program on disabilities in October.

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