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A Life's Mission in Mental Health: Cynthia Wainscott; Her Can-Do Spirit and Ability to Mobilize Garnered Results

Advocates come from different places in life, for various reasons, and offer distinctive approaches — but true dedication becomes commonplace in a deeply personal field of service.

About a hundred of Cynthia Wainscott's closest friends gathered in a Buckhead restaurant recently to send her off into sort-of retirement. There were numerous jokes about the executive director of the National Mental Health Association of Georgia and her affinity for cellphones, including some about the intimate article of clothing in which Wainscott likes to carry hers. (More about that later.)

But the evening mostly was filled with tributes to Wainscott as someone who has made a difference in public policies and public attitudes toward mental health in Georgia over the past decade. Included in the praise was a letter from former first lady Rosalynn Carter, one of the nation's leading mental health crusaders.

"You have been an important advocate not only here in Georgia but across the country, working tirelessly on behalf of those who suffer from mental illness and their families," Carter wrote.

It was a good way to wind down Wainscott's second career. In her first, she spent 30 years as the wife of a Navy attack-jet pilot. With her two daughters grown and gone, husband Bob assigned to the University of Minnesota's military science program and finding the life of a faculty wife "really not stimulating," Wainscott began perusing the want ads. On her second day of looking, she ran across a listing for a "volunteer coordinator" for some alphabet soup group called the MHAM.

"I went to that interview literally not knowing that MHAM stood for MentalHealth Association of Minnesota," Wainscott says. "I found out you have to coordinate volunteers, got the job and it was just like, 'Thank you, God.' I knew I was supposed to be there."

Wainscott was a college dropout taking over for someone who'd had a master's degree. But as a Navy wife, she had learned to get to know people quickly and to organize them to get things done, from Saturday-night parties to fund-raising drives.

Her sense of belonging not just at the Minnesota office but in the burgeoning mental health movement solidified when <spanclass=spelle>Wainscott worked in the National Institute of Mental Health's first public education campaign. The project focused on depression. That work helped Wainscott understand and cope with the suffering her mother and oldest daughter went through during their bouts with severe depression.

"Getting to work for the mental health association was just serendipitous," Wainscott says. "I mean, if you believe in divine intervention, it happened. If you don't, it was dumb luck."

That Cynthia Wainscott wound up running the National Mental Health Association of Georgia was about as much a part of a master plan as her entry into mental health advocacy through the want ads had been. Infact, she seemed destined to leave Minnesota for Brussels, where Bob <spanclass=spelle>Wainscott would have his last Navy posting.

But one sleepless night, she was surprised to hear Bob, who unbeknownst to her also was battling wakefulness.

"He said, 'You awake over there?' " <spanclass=spelle>Wainscott recalls.

"I said, 'Yeah.'

"He goes, 'What would we look back on more fondly in 20 years? <spanclass=grame>Two more years of staff meetings or (our granddaughter's) second and third birthdays?'

"I said, 'I'm packed. Let's go.' "

Jessica was the Wainscotts' first grandchild, born to their oldest daughter, Tara, president of Norman and Associates, the architectural firm she owns with her husband, architect Ray Norman. The prospect of being involved grandparents drew the <spanclass=spelle>Wainscotts to Georgia. Cynthia Wainscott's desire to continue her mental health mission led her to take a job here with the Mental Health Association of Georgia, though it didn't exactly look like a promising career move at the time.

"They only had enough money to pay me for three months," <spanclass=spelle>Wainscott recalls. "I didn't know that when they hired me. But I knew they were in dire straits. They had a staff of three, and it should have been just two, because they didn't have enough money to pay three."

In addition, there was the Mental Health Association of Metro Atlanta. The two groups should have been compatriots in the cause of mental health, but they acted more like rivals. The competition made fund-raising and other activities more difficult.

Wainscott hired on anyway, in part because of a philosophy of doing a job the way she sees fit, even when others --- including some with the power to send her packing --- see things differently.

"I don't do this because I want to get a bigger and better job," she says. "I do it because I want things to change. There's a certain luxury in not being beholden. There have been lots of times when I have been able to get out on a limb because if they tell me to go away, that would be perfectly OK."

By most accounts, Wainscott has been effective. She presided over the merger of the competing mental health associations. The resulting National Mental Health Association of Georgia has developed a reputation as one of the most active and effective chapters in the nation. The staff numbers 19, and the operating budget for this year is $1.4 million.

Her work has earned Wainscott prestigious appointments, including to the National Mental Health Association's board of directors, and honors --- most recently the 2001 Welcome Back Award for Community Service, presented by Eli Lilly and Co. in recognition of her work to "fight the stigma associated with depression."

"When you talk about mental health in Georgia, you talk about Cynthia Wainscott," says Ellen Yeager, director of public policy and advocacy for the National Mental Health Association of Georgia. "She has done a tremendous amount for people who have mental health issues. She has helped more people than she can imagine."

In what might pass for a typical day in the office, Wainscott works the phone, tending to details and drumming up support for the organization's 10th annual golf tournament, the organization's biggest fund-raiser. Started by former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn and his wife, Colleen, the tournament has drawn support from a diverse group of state leaders.

Those leaders don't just hear from Wainscott and her organization about golf. The association has been instrumental in empowering consumers of mental health services through changes in state policies. But some of the biggest victories in the past 10 years have involved keeping things from happening, Wainscott says.

There was, for example, the bill introduced in the Georgia General Assembly in the mid-1990s. It would have put an orange stripe on the driver's license of anyone who had been involuntarily committed to a state mental hospital. <spanclass=spelle>Wainscott and others lobbied against it and won. "You've got to stop a lot of bad stuff because of the stigma and discrimination attached to mental illness," she says.

The shelves and walls of the office hold plaques and pictures of <spanclass=spelle>Wainscott and people with whom she's worked on mental health issues, include Carter. And there's an autographed picture of Marc Summers, former host of a Nickelodeon cable channel game show who has spoken out about his obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Getting people to go public with their personal stories of mental illness has been a Wainscott specialty. "Having someone tell their personal story is a thousand times more powerful than anything else we can do," she says.

She has walked the walk about that. Last year, her mother and daughter were featured in a Family Circle magazine article about depression. The article quoted Wainscott on what it's like to be sandwiched between two generations who suffer from the disease.

Seeing the difference that effective treatment finally made for her mother, <spanclass=spelle>Wainscott says, is part of why she works toward making mental health care accessible for all.

"Mother didn't get significant help until she was in her early 70s,"she says. "She said to me about six weeks after she started the new medicine, 'It's as if someone lifted a dark veil.' "

Wainscott grew up on a farm in southern Indiana, eventually making her way to the University of Kentucky, where she met and married Bob. The years on the farm gave her a frame of reference for the kind of permanence she wanted after wandering the world alongside her husband. And so, the couple bagged Brussels and instead headed to Georgia to be close to their daughter and grandchildren.

Eventually, they built a house in CobbCounty's McNeel Farms subdivision, near the edge of the Kennesaw Mountain Civil War battlefield. Bob Wainscott planned the 5,000-square-foot house with his son-in-law's help. He laid it out along a stream that drops down into two waterfalls before emptying into a lake. And then he built it. "Dug the footings, did the wiring, framing and plumbing," Wainscott says of her husband. He also built furniture for the house.

"He's an artist," she says. She laughs before adding, "I'd say he's a trained killer and an artist at heart."

The Wainscotts can stand in their kitchen and see their daughter's home across the lake. Visiting involves a two-mile drive. "But the children can walk it in a few minutes by jumping across the creek," Wainscott says.

Though Tara Norman insisted on some ground rules before her parents moved down (no visits without calling first, for example), she's never regretted having them so close.

"For us, it was fantastic to have them make the decision to move here," she says. "I think it was the right decision."

Norman is particularly grateful that Wainscott has been "an awesome advocate" by insisting that granddaughter Jessica, who has attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, gets the help she needs in school.

Everyone at her sort-of retirement party clearly was skeptical that <spanclass=spelle>Wainscott is going to simply kick back and take it easy ("Don't be surprised when I still call you!" Carter scribbled on the bottom of her letter.)

Co-workers and friends shared stories about Wainscott's constantly ringing phone, of her making calls on the fly, or playing phone tag and leaving half a dozen numbers where she can be reached or beeped. And, of course, there were the stories about where she likes to keep that <spanclass=spelle>cellphone.

But the guest of honor had the last laugh. She thanked everyone for coming and for the kind words of appreciation.

Then a cell phone trilled. Cynthia Wainscott paused, reached into her bra for her phone and took another call.

The Cynthia Wainscott File

  • Born: Nov. 16, 1942, in Abilene, Texas.
  • Occupation: Executive director, National Mental Health Association of Georgia.
  • Home: Cobb County.
  • Family: Married to Bob Wainscott for 39 years. Daughter Tara, son-in-law Ray Norman and granddaughters Jessica, 11, Anna, 8,and Sarah, 4, live within walking distance. Daughter Beth flies 747s for an air cargo company and lives in London, where she and husband Chris Cronk, an Air Force pilot, are expecting a baby.
  • Education: After dropping out nearly 30 years earlier, she returned to college and earned a bachelor's in communications from Metropolitan State University in Minneapolis.
  • Quote: "Part of my motivation is I know my own family members have mental health care needs, and I want them to get what they need. Then there's another piece, and that is that for every child who has a mama who can go in there and be effective and stand their ground to get the help their children need, there are probably 10 kids who don't."

©2001 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Reprinted with permission from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Further reproduction, retransmission, or distribution of these materials without the prior written consent of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and any copyright holder identified in the material's copyright notice, is prohibited.

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