May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and Kathy Harris, president and CEO of Southeast Arkansas Behavioral Healthcare System, said Tuesday it is not a subject many people feel comfortable talking about.

“Our clients are probably one of the most vulnerable groups in society,” Harris said during a presentation at Coffee with the Chiefs, sponsored by Interested Citizens for Voter Registration and held at First Baptist Church.

She said society has placed a label on those with a mental illness, and “they tend to lose their identity as a person because of it.”

“Mental illness is not contagious,” she said. “It can affect anyone and you can’t try harder and overcome it.”

Harris also said the cause of mental illness is still unknown.

“No one can be blamed,” she said. “They may not realize they’re different and they need treatment.”

With a large group of police officers and firefighters in the room, Harris said, “You will see them lots of times at traumatic events. They suffer an illness that has not been treated.”

She said stress and depression are two of the more common symptoms of mental illness, along with suicidal thoughts, and many people with those symptoms don’t feel comfortable seeking treatment.

Harris outlined four stages of mental illness, the first of which can exhibit as mild symptoms followed by symptoms that increase in severity and frequency. By stage three, the symptoms have increased to the point that they interfere with life activities, she said.

“We want to reach people before they get to stage four,” Harris said.

She said the Southeast Arkansas Behavioral Healthcare System has professionals on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, including psychiatrists, and are available to respond to any type situations.

Also, same-day access is available at the center in Pine Bluff in the other counties the system serves.

“Mental health treatment works, and recovery is possible,” Harris said.

Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington was also on hand Tuesday and talked about two major projects that will be rolled out this week, including the public’s introduction to the new library, which was scheduled Tuesday afternoon, followed by groundbreaking for the new aquatic center Friday morning, thanks to a partnership with Go Forward Pine Bluff, which pledged $4 million for the project.

Tommy May, the chairman of the Simmons First Foundation, which provided the seed money for what became the Go Forward Pine Bluff tax initiative, also attended Tuesday’s meeting. Washington, who was a part of the Go Forward effort, said she was “excited about the partnership.”

“This public-private partnership will enable us to do more than the mayor and council could do individually,” the mayor said.