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Four Rivers Behavioral Health: Celebrating 50 years of the same innovative mission

BY GENEVIEVE POSTLETHWAIT gpostlethwait@paducahsun.com

F

our Rivers Behavioral Health is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

Its name has changed, its location moved, its services grown, but over the last half-century Four Rivers at its core is largely unchanged -- not for a lack of innovation, but because its founders were innovative to begin with.

Kentucky was a forerunner in moving away from institutionalization and instead establishing community mental health centers, and Paducah was one of the first cities in Kentucky to embrace the idea.

"It all goes back to the basic mission, and that's never going to change," said Allison Ogden, who worked with Four Rivers for years as a therapist before working her way up to executive director in 1997 and retiring in 2010.

Four Rivers' mission is to "provide comprehensive, integrated mental health, substance abuse, and mental retardation-developmental disability services that promote the health and quality of life of our community members."

"Unfortunately, no matter what medical science has been able to advance in our understanding of mental illness as a biological illness -- not a punishment, not something people have control over -- it's not going away," Ogden said.

"(Four Rivers) has been a well-kept secret for 50 years. Some of it's because people want to maintain a low profile because of the nature of the illness. There was a lot of stigma, not that there isn't now, but there's not near as much as there was back then. The buy-in was slow, but Mrs. Edna Glynn was stalwart and determined."

Though this is officially Four Rivers' 50th year, its roots go back to almost a decade before its founding date when the late Glynn, a state-employed psychiatric social worker, set up shop in the Paducah-McCracken County Health Department at 916 Kentucky Ave.

Ogden never got to meet Glynn, but said she almost feels as if she did, just through the memories of others. If only Glynn could see how much Four Rivers has grown from her little office in the health department, Ogden said.

According to figures compiled by Glynn in 1962 and reported in the Paducah Sun-Democrat, in the early years Four Rivers conducted an average of 812 "interviews" or consultations at the center per year in McCracken County and the surrounding area. Last year Four Rivers served 13,485 individuals in Kentucky's nine western-most counties.

These days Four Rivers' roughly 300 employees offer mental health services and education, court services, counseling services for area schools, substance abuse services and other services too numerous to list.

Advances in medications and the expansion of research-based practices over the years have allowed Four Rivers to better fulfill its mission as a community-based mental health center and help individuals cope with a broader range of illnesses.

Many of its challenges, however, are much the same. The need is great, and meeting that need as it continues to grow will likely always be a challenge.

"We hire constantly," Hudspeth said. "If we can find (counselors), we'll hire them."

The need for behavioral health professionals in more rural areas is a national issue, he said, and a longtime one. Even some of the 1950s and '60s Sun-Democrat articles in the Four Rivers' scrapbooks mention it. For some time now Four Rivers has offered an internship program to area students to increase interest in working locally rather than moving to bigger cities.

This summer Four Rivers took on its first bachelor's-level intern in hopes of making those connections even earlier in practitioners' careers -- the center has typically only offered master's-level internships.

Gretchen Roof, vice president of Four Rivers clinical services and director of its internship programs, said one of the biggest challenges in recruiting counselors is the rural location. Though the agency is blessed to have Murray State in its backyard, she said, most colleges producing graduates qualified to provide mental health services are far away in bigger cities. Most of those students will seek out internships and employment near wherever they went to school.

"The nice thing is, of the people that do come and do an internship with us, the vast majority of them stay," Roof said.

Looking at the next 10, 20, even 50 years, Hudspeth said Four Rivers will continue to expand its reach and meet more people where they are, be it through schools, doctor's offices, health clinics or any other place an individual in quiet crisis might go rather than walking into its offices.

As one of Four Rivers' longest-serving employees, recently retired human resources director Anne Thurman, put it, there's still a lot of stigma attached to walking through the doors of a mental health center. "We're moving forward I think, but there are still a lot of people out there that just haven't let go and gotten help," Thurman said. "So the more we talk about it, the more places we can put a counselor, even if he sits there for hours and doesn't see a soul, he might see someone that day that opens up, and there's a life. There's a life, a family you can help out."

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