At a glance
Park Center is a nonprofit counseling and psychiatric center serving Allen, Adams and Wells counties. It serves between 7,000 and 8,000 people a year, treating serious illnesses such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia as well as routine illnesses such as depression, stress and anxiety.
It employs about 400 people with an annual budget of about $24 million. In addition to walk-ins, some clients are referred by family doctors, judges and church officials.
The center, which began in 1950 as the Child Guidance Center in Fort Wayne, has offices in Fort Wayne, Decatur and Bluffton.
Thirty years ago, someone diagnosed with a mental illness could be hospitalized for months, perhaps indefinitely. But psychiatric treatment has come a long way in the last few decades.
When Paul Wilson began working at Park Center as an outpatient therapist in 1978 – his first job out of graduate school – treatment options and resources for those with psychiatric problems were slim. In fact, the causes of mental illnesses were still in question, he said.
Wilson has witnessed vast improvements in treatments and the diagnosis of behavioral health illnesses during his 34 years at the center.
Behavioral health encompasses myriad illnesses, including anxiety and mood disorders, eating disorders, impulse control and addiction disorders, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
“Years ago, it was not clear if those types of illnesses were due to biology or family environment,” Wilson said. “Now we know that illnesses such as bipolar disorder (historically known as manic-depressive illness) are clearly biology-based.”
By all accounts, Wilson has been a rock in the community when it comes to mental health issues, but he will quickly explain that he is simply doing his job.
“It’s a privilege,” he said.
Wilson, who has worked at in at least 10 different positions at Park Center over the years, is now president and chief executive officer.
Standing over 6 feet tall, the gray-haired CEO has an affable smile, an unassuming manner, yet a commanding presence. He looks younger than his 61 years.
Reluctant to talk about himself or his accomplishments, Wilson offers plenty of discussion about the center and its services, or his staff, whom he holds in high regard.
Because of diminished budgets, he was forced to make two difficult decisions in the last few years, including cuts to the Assertive Community Treatment program and day treatment services.
Laying off employees was hard on Wilson, said Sherrie Patterson, who works with Wilson at Park Center.
“It was obviously hurtful to have to lay off staff, but he was also distressed by the effect it would have on clients,” Patterson said.
Patterson met Wilson shortly after she was hired at Park Center and was immediately impressed by his genuine good nature and sense of humor, she said.
“It was obvious that he had a great passion for the mission at Park Center and truly cared about the people we serve,” Patterson said.
She hoped to work with him one day, and in 2008 she got her wish when she became his executive assistant.
That caring attitude and obvious pride comes across when Wilson talks of the center’s many programs.
In addition to counseling and treatment for adults and children, the center offers addiction services and rehabilitation and self-sufficiency and employment programs, he said.
Wilson is not your run-of-the-mill company president, said James Williams, executive assistant at National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI.
“He never wants the focus to be on him,” William said. “He always helps and never says no.”
NAMI offers resources and support to those with mental illnesses, as well as to their families.
Wilson recently went out of his way to help a young woman suffering from a severe mental illness, Williams said.
The mother of the girl had come to NAMI for help and Williams was touched by her plight. The woman did not know how to communicate with or help her daughter and was distressed, Williams said.
Not long after that, Williams ran into Wilson.
“I approached him and asked if he would give me some suggestions,” Williams said. “Not only did he point me in the right direction, he spearheaded the effort, and everything just fell into place.”
Today, the young woman has her own apartment and is doing well, he said.
“Paul Wilson saves lives, literally,” Williams said.
Wilson is particularly proud of his highly dedicated staff and community partnerships.
“This is a community of stellar partnerships when it comes to mental health and addiction issues,” he said. “We are known around the state for this.”
Partners include NAMI, Parkview Behavioral Health, the Carriage House, Kelly House, Neighborhood Health, crisis intervention teams with area police departments and several key judges who have developed innovative problem-solving courts.
Carolyn Brody, chairwoman of Park Center’s board of directors, said Wilson is exceptional at working with others in the community and a tremendous leader.
Brody has known and worked with Wilson for more than 10 years, and one word keeps popping up when she speaks of him: “exceptional.”
“He is the most compassionate person I’ve ever met,” Brody said, “and extremely bright, but exceptionally humble.
“The people who work for and with him have the utmost respect for him,” she said, “and, oh yes, he’s very funny.”
Now retired, the former director of NAMI, Kathy Bayes, worked closely with Wilson during the development of the Carriage House, a clubhouse-type program that assists people in their recovery from mental illness and reintegration into the community.
“We are blessed that he has decided to stay in Fort Wayne all these years because I know he’s had other offers,” Bayes said. “His commitment to serving those with severe and persistent mental illness cannot be matched anywhere else in Indiana.”
Dr. Deborah McMahan, commissioner for the Fort Wayne-Allen County Department of Health, often confers with Wilson.
In almost every health crisis her department encounters, stress, anxiety or depression are underlying factors, McMahan said.
And Wilson is one of the few who realize the importance of integrating mental and physical health issues, she said.
Both McMahan and Wilson are encouraged by the promise of an integration of behavioral and physical health in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
“This will help the general population increase health by addressing uncontrolled stress, uncovering unaddressed depression and anxiety, and helping people work with addiction issues, “ Wilson said. “Integrated care will be better and less expensive.”
McMahan and Wilson have worked together in trying to secure funding for a three-year study that would show the gaps in services for those with mental illnesses, as well as the providers who serve them.
The study would pinpoint barriers when seeking help for behavioral health concerns and determine how easily or difficult it is to navigate the local system, McMahan said.
The department so far has been unsuccessful in securing the $150,000 needed for the study, an assessment and comprehensive plan, but McMahan said they will continue to apply for grants.
“It is a lot of money, but the benefits would be long term,” she said.