Local | Mind, Body & Spirit

Local woman is champion for mental health recovery

Mindy Bernstein, executive director of the Coyote Task Force, at Café 54 in downtown Tucson, a work training project for people with mental illness (Scott Greissel/Creatista)

Mindy Bernstein, executive director of the Coyote Task Force, a local behavioral health agency, landed in Tucson in 1976. She wasn’t sure then what her path would be, but she never imagined a career in mental health advocacy.

“I’ve been working in public behavioral health since 1986,” Bernstein told the AJP. “I’ve watched the trends. I’ve seen the changes and transitions that new medications made in people’s lives.” Back in the ’80s, she started to understand her own childhood trauma. “I’ve been on my own healing journey ever since.”

While she was working at a Kino Hospital pilot program, she recalls, it was clear many suffered from childhood trauma. Bernstein, 59, who receives treatment for depression, had “a very stressful childhood. I lived on a chicken farm in New York State” as a young child, she says. In 1958 her family, which included her two sisters, moved to Fontana, Calif., where her father established another chicken farm. “We were raised as Reconstructionist Jews in the early 1960s. We had conversations about Judaism. Tikkun olam (repairing the world) was stressed. Progressive causes like the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] were very much a part of our life. I identify my work now as my way of being Jewish. We always had Friday night Shabbat dinner and celebrated the Jewish holidays but were never devoutly spiritual.” Her parents chose to make aliyah in 1969.

“I attended high school in Israel and followed a boyfriend to Tucson,” says Bernstein, who then attended Pima Community College where she earned two associate’s degrees. She was the first student in a pilot project in rehabilitation counseling at the University of Arizona, where she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. “I didn’t think I was smart enough to be a vet or a marine biologist or talented enough to be an actress, but I connected well with other damaged people,” she says. “I was bullied as a child. I empathized with others who had a tough time.”

In 1988, Bernstein was asked to fill in for a social worker on maternity leave in the Kino Hospital psychiatry department. Next, “I was asked to interview as a clinician in cutting edge mental health [treatment]. In 1992, I was asked to interview as executive director at Our Place Clubhouse,” a psych-social rehabilitation community now part of the Coyote Task Force, along with Café 54 and the Re-Threads Thrift Store on Pennington Street. “I never would have pursued [the position] on my own,” she says.

“OPC philosophy resonates with me. I’m working with people who have a disability. They’re people. What we do in our program is help people achieve what they’ve dreamed about” through community support, real-life activities and job training. The café at 54 E. Pennington St., which serves lunch during the week and trains OPC members in food preparation and restaurant job skills, was Bernstein’s brainchild. It opened in July 2004, with 100 percent funding from the Community Partnership of Southern Arizona. Recently, OPC members began a food truck lunch service, rolling out Truck 54.

Bernstein has seen progress in behavioral health, personally and professionally. “Medications have changed my life greatly, along with talk therapy and increased self-esteem. Within the last two decades there’s been a paradigm shift, with people telling their stories and because of the new meds.”

For her, “it’s been a privilege to have the long view of how far we’ve come working with people who have psychological illnesses. Imagine how much further we’d be if [behavioral health services] were fully funded. We’re still disenfranchised and stigmatized.”

Even professionals in the field of psychology hold back from discussing their own behavioral health issues, she says. “My first diagnosis is that I’m a human being. I have a genetic predisposition from my mother’s side that presupposes mental illness. It’s not a death disease.” The recession and political decision-making have reduced behavioral health services considerably, says Bernstein. “The number of emergency mental illness calls are increasing and filling up jails, which costs more than putting people in jobs and meaningful activity. And it doesn’t help anybody.”

In fact, Arizona is the state with the highest prevalence of mental illness and lowest rate of access to care, according to “Parity or Disparity: The State of Mental Health in America 2015,” a report released in December by Mental Health America, a community-based mental health advocacy organization.

Here in Tucson, Bernstein tries to uplift the people she works with daily. Social interaction, whether with OPC members and staff or through outreach activities, helps people in recovery gain self-esteem.

At Café 54, “we can cater b’nai mitzvah, private parties or any simcha,” she says. OPC has other outreach programs, too. “If you have a business we will select and support people with mental illness who are capable and ready to work. We have people who have gone through our programs and are no longer on disability, some of whom are working full-time in challenging managerial or professional positions.”

In the Tucson Jewish community, “we’ve been at the forefront of civil rights and I hope we will champion the needs of chronic and persistent mental illness,” says Bernstein. “If you have mental illness in your family, talk about it because then it’s much harder to ignore. I wish we wouldn’t allow mental illness to be a shame-based disease, because it is now.”

And with Passover coming up, she asks, “Why not set that extra place for the stranger, for a person who may have nothing? Why not invite someone from OPC to come to your seder?”

In Bernstein’s own journey, “I completely feel that as a Jewish woman I was offered this path and I somehow dug deep to find the courage to accept it,” she says.

“Here I am, the daughter of a Jewish chicken farmer, who runs a mental health rehab facility and opened a restaurant that’s won four national awards. I get paid for the work I do, which is about helping people. I get paid to love people.”

For more information or to donate to OPC or to the Re-Threads Thrift Store, contact Bernstein at 884-5553 or opclubhouse@earthlink.net. Full disclosure: AJP Associate Editor Sheila Wilensky is on the board of the Coyote Task Force.