SMETHPORT — “That’s my wish, is that everybody would realize, it’s a disease. And it is a disease that they can overcome,” said STEPS Drop-In Center coordinator Maggie Travis before she banged a gavel against the bell in the McKean County Courthouse rotunda on Tuesday morning.

With reverberating ring of the bell, she, along with McKean County officials, STEP organization leaders and area residents, called attention to mental health awareness. Just minutes before, the McKean County Commissioners designated May as Mental Health Awareness Month.

Mental health is essential to everyone’s overall health and well-being, and all Americans experience times of difficulty and stress in their lives, said Commissioner chairman Joe DeMott, who read from the proclamation during the meeting.

He continued, the “promotion and prevention are effective ways to reduce the burden of mental health conditions and whereas, there is a strong body of research that support user-friendly tools that all Americans can access to better handle challenges and protect their health and well-being. Mental health conditions are real and prevalent in our nation.”

But with effective treatment, individuals with mental health conditions can recover and lead full, productive lives, DeMott said. County officials said that every business, school, government agency, faith-based organization, health care provider and citizen has a responsibility to promote mental health awareness and support prevention efforts.

“We also call upon citizens, organizations, businesses and schools in McKean County to recommit our community to increasing awareness and understanding of mental health, the steps our residents can take to protect their mental health, and the need for appropriate and accessible services for all people with mental-health conditions,” DeMott read from the county’s proclamation. 

One of the mental health services in the Bradford area is the STEPS Drop-In Center, a consumer-run social and recreational center for those who have received or are receiving mental health services in the community. Tuesday’s commissioners meeting included guests, facility coordinator Maggie Travis of Olean, N.Y., STEPS volunteer coordinator Gary Haines of Bradford, and newsletter editor Tim Sawdey of Bradford.

Anywhere from five to 40 people visit the center a day at 62 Main St. in Bradford, which provides several activities, such as ceramics, pool tournaments, oil painting, day trips and more. Membership is open to individuals 18-years-old and over.

The center, in its 21st year, is open Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 1 to 7 p.m. Meals are served Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays for 50 cents. Individuals can also earn meal tickets for doing work at the facility, including cleaning. 

DeMott praised the work happening at the social center, saying he appreciates what the organization does.

“Thank you for what you do in the community. We appreciate that,” he said.

Also during the meeting, officials passed out green ribbons for mental health awareness, made by STEPS members. The green ribbons will also be distributed May 22 by those at STEPS. 

Tuesday’s bell ringing also won’t be the only one in the coming days. At noon May 15, those from STEPS will ring bells at Veterans Square in Bradford.

A story, which Travis read at the commissioners meeting, will be recited during the Bradford bell ringing. 

At one time, mental health patients were retrained with iron chains and shackles. Around the mid-1950s,  the National Mental Health Association later collected the devices, melted them down and transformed them into a sign of hope: the mental health bell.

“Now the symbol of NMHA, the 300-pound bell serves as a powerful reminder that the invisible chains of misunderstanding and discrimination continue to bind people with mental illnesses. Today, the mental health bell rings out hope for improving mental health and achieving victory over mental illnesses,” Travis read from the document. “Over the years, national mental health leaders and other prominent individuals have rung the bell to mark the continued progress in the fight for victory over mental illnesses.”

Individuals at STEPS will also recognize Mental Health Awareness Month on May 26, on a day that artist Julie Mader will lead a class from 2 to 4 p.m.

For more information about STEPS, call 814-362-6260.