By Derek Lacey / Staff Writer

Guillermo Villar, Mental Health Association Ambassador, speaks to Mint Hill Chamber of Commerce members at the June luncheon.

Guillermo Villar, Mental Health Association Ambassador, speaks to Mint Hill Chamber of Commerce members at the June luncheon.

The Mint Hill Chamber of Commerce welcomed new members and heard a touching message at their June member luncheon.

New members Southern Charm Cleaning and Family-First Chiropractic joined the ranks at the chamber in June.

Southern Charm Cleaning is a commercial and residential cleaning service that uses a five-step cleaning process that includes on-site visits, personalized checklists and regular follow-ups.

Family-First Chiropractic has served Mint Hill for 16 years, and Doctors Doug and Vicki Jordan specialize in chiropractic care, acupuncture, nutrition, massage therapy and weight loss.

The featured guest at the meeting was the Mental Health Association, who spoke to the chamber about the importance of mental health, and the organization’s new campaign to fight the stigma associated with mental disorders.

The Mental Health Association of Central Carolinas “has been the voice of hope for persons affected by mental illness” since its founding in 1933.

MHA serves all of Mecklenburg and Cabarrus Counties, providing resources, advocacy and education about mental health.

Development Director for MHA and Mint Hill resident Andrie Towner spoke to chamber members at the lunch, introducing MHA and its mission, as well as two other speakers, Guillermo Villar and Lindsey Jackson, who spoke about their respective experiences with mental health.

Towner spoke about some of the volunteer opportunities at MHA, which include Compeer, MHA Young Affiliates and special events volunteers.

Compeer is a program to match same-gender adults with adults who have a mental illness, basically providing a friend.

Towner said individuals suffering from a chronic mental illness often experience fewer hospitalizations, reduced isolation and loneliness, and increased self-esteem. Compeer volunteers simply spend time with patients, and can include activities as simple as taking a walk in the park.

Villar, who has recently been placed as a Compeer volunteer, and who also serves as an MHA ambassador, spoke to chamber members about his experience throughout his life with depression.

“I want to tell you a story about a three-legged dog, about depression, about how talking about mental health helps to remove the stigma and shame that is often associated with mental health and mental health challenges.” Villar said, beginning his story.

He told of how  one of his animals, Oscar is a three-legged dog, comparing reactions to a three-legged dog with reactions to persons with mental illness, and said that when he takes Oscar to the dog park, the reactions of pity and interest lead to the best part of the encounter, which is the conversation.

“Being able to have an encounter that leads to a discussion and a normal conversation helps to remove any mystery or anything that may seem weird at first,” Villar said.

Villar told of how he struggled with depression at different time in his life and how treatment helped him each time he was afflicted with depression.

He spoke of how talking, and eventually medication helped him, and how his depression was like Oscar’s having three legs: not good or bad, and shame and judgment has nothing to do with it.

Villar’s message was that mental illnesses are extremely common, and a call for people to speak more openly about mental health issues.

The next speaker was Lindsey Jackson, another ambassador for MHA, whose brother committed suicide in October 2011.

While introducing her, Towner gave some statistics about suicide and suicide prevention, saying that more than 90 percent of people who commit suicide suffered from an undiagnosed or under-treated mental illness, and that, when surveyed in 2011, 15 percent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg School system students indicated that they have attempted suicide at least once in the previous year.

Jackson said the last 18 months have been a difficult time for her and her family and friends, having to develop a new normal.

“For me, one of the most difficult parts of dealing with the entire experience has been to accept the fact that this pain could have been avoided,” Jackson said.

Jackson urged chamber members to not attach the common stigmas to mental health, and to treat them the same as other health issues, and to seek help for mental issues the same way you would a broken arm.

“There’s a misconception that goes along with mental health unlike anything else,” Jackson said. “It’s often associated with failure and shame.”

For more information on the MHA, or how to get involved, visit