When Donna Friedman walked into the lobby of her 5676 Riverdale Ave., building, she had no idea she was about to save a life.
The Mosaic Mental Health clinic executive director walked downstairs from her office on a Friday to find a woman looking at the directory of offices in the building.
“Something about her made me stop and ask if I could help her,” Friedman said.
So she did. Friedman found out the woman had missed a walk-in appointment at Mosaic the day before where she would have met with an intake worker — someone who would connect her with a therapist at the facility.
Friedman immediately brought her upstairs to get her connected with her therapist. A week later, that therapist had a message for Friedman.
“She said, ‘The woman who you escorted upstairs last Friday who you brought to our intake worker’s space … she said you saved her life,’” Friedman recalls.
The woman was set to take her own life had it not been for Friedman’s encouragement to get help, the therapist relayed, and she was grateful for what Friedman had done for her.
Looking back at that brief interaction, Friedman can’t help but feel how powerful it was to have had made such an impact on someone’s life.
“I am the executive director,” she said. “I fundraise, I do a lot of meetings, I hire people. But at the core of what I do, it’s about the individuals we help. And we will keep doing that because that’s what we’re all about.”
Friedman’s focus always has been on the people Mosaic strives to help ever since she started as a graduate intern there in Fall 1992 when it was still known as Riverdale Mental Health Association. Now, 27 years later, Friedman’s jump from intern, to practicing therapist, to Mosaic’s deputy executive director, and now its executive director has allowed her to embody the organization’s mission to help people through counseling.
And while Friedman has some 30 years of Mosaic experience under her belt to celebrate soon, she has another immediate milestone to look forward to — Mosaic’s 60th anniversary.
Mosaic Mental Health, which changed its name in 2017, began in a Riverdale apartment in March 1959 by people who “wanted to meet the needs of young adults and adults who were suffering either from mental illness, or substance abuse disorders,” Friedman said. One of its founders also happened to be The Riverdale Press’ own co-founder, Celia Stein.
The motivation to bring something like this to Riverdale came from a movement in the 1950s and 1960s that pushed for outpatient services for people who were institutionalized in hospitals, Friedman added, while also helping them find a way to integrate themselves back into the community.
Over the last six decades, Mosaic has grown from not only serving people in the northwest Bronx, but also from individuals living in Manhattan and Westchester, with services ranging from individual therapy to satellite clinics at places like RSS-Riverdale Senior Services and IN-Tech Academy.
In fact, it was that expanded reach that led the organization to change its name in the first place, Friedman said.
When it comes to Friedman juggling all of her responsibilities as an executive director, she says it’s all about trying focus on the macro and micro levels of Mosaic’s operations.
“I’m very devoted to both the detail of what we do on a day-to-day basis and our primary mission, (which) is to serve individuals and families,” she said. “I firmly believe in prevention, so we try to get in early and often with people who are showing signs of distress to reduce more serious problems down the road.”
Friedman also credits the 90 staff members who help make each day successful for those seeking help.
“We’re like a family,” she said. “We support each other and really believe in what we do.”
Mosaic also fights against negative perceptions surrounding mental health.
“If we don’t destigmatize this, we alienate a lot of people who just won’t ask for help,” Friedman said. “There’s so much need and people are ashamed because no one has been able to really convey that we are all on a continuum of struggle.
“So we are dedicated to trying to help people to really take a look in the mirror and ask (themselves), ‘Do I know anyone, or have I myself struggled in any way? And how can I make a difference to make people feel OK about asking for help and getting support?’”
Even Friedman’s staff is not immune to those questions. She recalls a time where the group discussed implementing its vocational services program, which aims to help people with mental health issues find jobs. While there were concerns in the beginning, they ultimately chose to implement the program.
“There’s nothing more helpful toward destigmatization than to be working in the community and feeling a part of the community,” Friedman said. “And we have really demonstrated that this is the case, that people with mental illnesses can work and feel good about themselves. And they can contribute to society and feel supported and be making a difference in the lives of other people.”
It was with these sweeping changes destigmatizing mental health issues that inspired Friedman to share a personal story of her own. Friedman has an older brother with mental health issues, something she shared for the first time about a decade ago.
“I think I realized in that moment that while the work that I do isn’t about my own experience, it was really important for me to share that I have a personal connection to this,” Friedman said. “It was a pivotal moment for me in terms of moving toward that destigmatization.”
Looking ahead to the next 60 years of Mosaic Mental Health, Friedman hopes it becomes “more inclusive and more respectful of the ideas and feelings and needs of everyone involved.”
“We just want to continue to do that,” she said. “But at the same time, being a voice for the vulnerable people who can’t do that for themselves.”