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Local Residents Start 'The Brain Foundation'

Hoping to help people with mental illness, two Centreville women have started a private, nonprofit entity called The Brain Foundation.

"I hope to have it be like the Kidney Foundation or the Heart Association to emphasize the physical aspect of mental illness," said founder Trudy Harsh of Chalet Woods. She wants people to understand that conditions such as schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder and depression are physical diseases of the brain. And she hopes to raise money to help those afflicted.

"The safety net we have in our community just isn't enough," she explained. "I have several friends in western Fairfax County who have children who did not receive the services they needed from the county because of lack of funds."

Harsh represents the Sully District on the Fairfax/Falls Church Community Services Board and is the former president of the advisory board of the Northwest Center for Mental Health. The Brain Foundation's treasurer, Marnie Wightman of the Manorgate community, has also served on Northwest's board and is a current member of the Fairfax County Human Services Council.

"People who are seriously mentally ill have problems that we need to do something about," said Wightman. "Mental illness is real, very common and often misdiagnosed or under-diagnosed. But it's treatable, in most cases."

"A lot of people who have been released from mental institutions are homeless now — and many are in jail," added Harsh. "Our goal is to try and fill in some of the gaps currently facing the mentally ill."

For example, she'd like to help them join Pathway Home's dental program and, perhaps, help with some of their medications. "And hopefully, in the very long run, we hope to build some efficiency apartments for them."

But these things take money, so the two mental-health advocates are holding a fund-raiser, Saturday, June 28, from 5-10 p.m., at 14735 Jarnigan St. in Centreville. Cost is $25/person, and what's on tap is a backyard pig-roast with all the trimmings, a live band and an Elvis Presley impersonator. R.S.V.P. to Harsh at 703-830-8852.

Tax-deductible donations payable to The Brain Foundation may also be sent to Trudy Harsh, 14735 Jarnigan St., Centreville, VA 20120.

She's hoping for a good turnout because the need is so great. In 1955, she said, some 558,000 people were mental-hospital in-patients throughout the U.S. But by the year 2000, this number was down to less than 60,000.

"In most cases, the patients weren't cured, but simply cast out onto the streets," said Harsh. "In 1996, HUD estimated that 200,000 people with serious mental illness were homeless."

"Our mission is to address some of the practical issues — that people shouldn't be on the street or in jail because they're sick," added Wightman. "It's our goal to do what we can to alleviate some of the problems these people suffer."