Stories of Impact: How the Mental Health & Addiction Advocacy Coalition is Voicing the Needs of the Vulnerable and Uniting Communities

three people pose for a picture at an event
Karen Kearney (center), Northeast Ohio Hub Director, the Mental Health & Advocacy Coalition, works on the ground to advocate for local needs throughout Northeast Ohio. Pictured with Judge Lauren Moore (left), Cleveland Municipal Court, and Scott Osiecki (right), Chief Executive Officer, the Cuyahoga County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board.

“Changing Minds, Changing Lives,” is the motto behind the Mental Health & Addiction Advocacy Coalition’s (MHAC) overarching goal to improve access to mental health and addiction services. As a nonprofit coalition currently consisting of 118 member organizations, the MHAC provides a platform where diverse organizations come together and speak with a common voice to advocate for financial and legislative support at the state and local levels for individuals with mental illness and addiction disorders. We asked Karen Kearney, Northeast Ohio Hub Director, to explain how the MHAC succeeds in its mission-driven advocacy, from research to education to collaboration. 

Why is it important to have both local- and state-level representation?

Kearney: A lot of overarching policy is made at the state level through the administration and the General Assembly. Their decisions directly impact the availability of services in different counties throughout the state. But, it’s also important to have attention on local communities because we have very different counties in Ohio, some more rural and some more urban. Different counties have different problems and needs. A one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate, and the people who know the needs of each community best are the people who work and live there.

Need an advocate? Are you an individual who needs help finding an advocate or access to services? If you are looking for someone to support you as an advocate for treatment or other resources, contact your local ADAMHS Board or your local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and ask how to get connected with an advocate or ombudsman.

To find the contact information for your local Board, use the following link:

To connect with your local NAMI chapter, use the following link:

Support the Mental Health & Addiction Advocacy Coalition:

Donate now to help individuals with mental health and addiction disorders.

Learn about current bills related to mental health and addiction disorders in the Ohio General Assembly in the process of becoming law.

Follow the MHAC on Twitter @MHAC_Ohio and on Facebook @MHAC.Ohio.

How do you build unity between MHAC’s members, and why is it important to have a cohesive voice as a coalition?

It’s important to have a cohesive voice because when we’re able to say, ‘We have an 118-member organization,’ it means more to a legislator than a single organization saying, ‘We have a very specific problem we want you to address.’ There’s more power in collaborating.

Creating a unified voice is difficult, especially among the diverse range of member organizations we work with. They don’t always agree on issues. We try to find commonalities and lay everything out ahead of time, so there won’t be unforeseen conflicts.

We use what’s called an advocacy agenda at the local and state level as a roadmap that lays out what we’re going to work on. We define focus areas and specific action steps that we can use to measure our success. We invite all our members to participate in local and state Policy & Advocacy Committees, so everyone has an opportunity to weigh in on the agenda. This allows us to hash out those differences before we advocate.

Can you tell us about the four-part series of research reports titled “By the Numbers” that the MHAC completed in collaboration with The Center for Community Solutions?

Our “By the Numbers” reports are all on different topics. The most recent one addresses the extraordinarily high volume of behavioral health problems in the criminal justice system, and where Ohio’s strengths and gaps exist relating to that. The over-representation of behavioral health problems in the criminal justice system is often caused because there isn’t a good crisis response in the community. For example, someone could be having a mental health crisis and, to a bystander, it appears to be a violent person looking to hurt others. Really, they’re experiencing a crisis and if they could access treatment right away, it could be resolved. Often what happens is the police get called, and if they’re not educated on how to respond to a crisis, the person having a mental health crisis could end up in jail instead of getting the treatment he or she needs outside of the criminal justice system. On the addiction side, people often get arrested for something as small as possession or intoxication and they end up in jail instead of receiving detox or treatment.

Excerpt from Cuyahoga County Sequential Intercept Mapping Final Report (August 2017) by Northeast Ohio Medical University.

Excerpt from Cuyahoga County Sequential Intercept Mapping Final Report (August 2017) by Northeast Ohio Medical University.

After conducting this research, what’s the next step?

Our research highlights a lot of interesting work that’s happening around the state related to behavioral health and criminal justice. One example is a process called sequential intercept mapping. Northeast Ohio Medical University is working with counties throughout the state to map out the different points at which a person in need of mental health services has the opportunity to be intercepted and treated for a mental illness. This includes preventing people from entering the criminal justice system by getting them treatment before an incident occurs or after they’ve been arrested, making sure they receive treatment while in jail or awaiting sentencing. Post release is also an opportunity to help. The report includes specific recommendations for how policymakers and other stakeholders can take action to improve outcomes for people with behavioral health disorders who are involved in the criminal justice system.

Can you speak about your relationship with the Cleveland Foundation?

The MHAC is supported around 80% by foundations and 20% by member dues and other revenue, so for the past 16 years we’ve relied heavily on philanthropic support. We’re honored that the Cleveland Foundation has been by our side for a long time and has been very supportive of our work. As a local foundation, they are very knowledgeable about local issues. It helps to have a funder that’s so rooted in Cleveland and willing to connect us to other organizations too, because we’re always trying to expand our membership.

Stay tuned for more “Stories of Impact” in our community throughout 2019 featuring Cleveland Foundation partners and grant-funded nonprofit organizations. Looking to donate to a specific field of interest or begin your own fund to support causes you care about? Visit: