November 20, 2017
Wendy Hughes watched her father struggle with depression.
That family history and subsequent work with behavioral health agencies led to her latest job — president and CEO of Jacksonville-based Mental Health America of Northeast Florida.
“Growing up with a father who went far too long without treatment for major depressive disorder inspires me to break down the walls of stigma and promote early intervention,” she said.
Hughes, 43, recently succeeded Denise Marzullo at the area affiliate of Mental Health America, which provides mental health support, recovery and advocacy. In August, Marzullo became the new president and CEO of the Early Learning Coalition of Duval.
“My hope is to lead the agency with as much integrity and creativity as Denise … did. I am eager to meet members of the community and hear from them as to what they see as our most pressing needs in the community,” Hughes said.
A certified public accountant, Hughes worked in the for-profit sector early in her career. But she spent the last 12 years working for nonprofits in South Georgia, serving as chief financial officer for large community behavioral health centers in Waycross and Brunswick.
“I saw a broad perspective of mental health services, the needs of those served by mental providers and the gaps that exist in the continuum of care,” said Hughes, who this year added a master’s degree in health care management to her resume. The job at Mental Health America “appealed to my desire to share my vision for improved access and coordination of care to fill those gaps,” she said.
“We give a voice for those that are often not heard,” she said. “We try to teach them to become their own advocates so that in one voice we can all speak out for change and remove barriers to treatment.”
Finding her niche in nonprofit work, Hughes said, “was a blessing.”
“A nonprofit agency’s worth is not measured in profit, it is measured by the improvements in the community and the lives impacted by that service,” she said. “There is no better feeling than to go home at night knowing that I made a difference in someone’s life.”
Board chairman Patrick McCabe said the nonprofit’s CEO search committee received many applications for the position and at least a dozen well-qualified candidates.
“Wendy’s combination of nonprofit executive leadership, health operations management and financial business acumen really stood out,” he said.
Hughes, who lives in St. Johns County with her husband and two daughters, said the stigma surrounding mental health treatment is “easing somewhat.”
“People seem to be more willing to accept treatment. … The biggest barrier is not knowing where to get help. Access to services is a national problem,” she said.
It is a particular problem in Florida, which ranks 44th in the nation in access to mental heath care, according to the latest Mental Health America study. Those rankings are based on availability of providers and the number of people in the area who are uninsured and underinsured, she said.
Identifying such service gaps are her next steps in her new job.
“My hope is that over the next several months we as a community can come together to formulate a detailed community-needs assessment and … guide our community in answering those needs,” she said.
Beth Reese Cravey: (904) 359-4109