Special/Signature Issues » 2011 Top 40 Under 40

Mira Signer, 35

Executive Director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Virginia

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It was July 2007. The state was still reeling from April’s tragedy at Virginia Tech, when mentally disturbed student Seung-Hui Cho opened fire on campus, killing 32 people.

Suddenly, everyone was talking about mental health care in Virginia. But the main advocacy group for Virginians with mental illness was leaderless and in disarray.

That’s when Mira Signer took the reins. “Are you sure you want to do this?” friends asked her. Signer was sure. “Something has to happen now, or never,” she told them.

While legislators began considering whether they should tighten the state’s involuntary commitment laws, Signer began pushing hard for Virginia to improve its mental-health services.

In Signer’s ideal world, all Virginians with mental illness — whether they’re covered by Medicaid or private insurance — would obtain the treatment and services they need before a crisis occurs, without having to battle the system.

Virginia’s current system is driven by crisis, Signer says, relying on hospitals and jails to handle patients. It could better serve people by offering preventive services such as crisis-stabilization centers, supportive housing and speedy appointments, she says: “By the time somebody actually picks up the phone and says, ‘I need help,’ they need help right then and there.”

Under Signer, the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Virginia also has launched peer-run groups to support veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and parents of children diagnosed with mental illness. She’s united local affiliates of the alliance and helped its members tell their stories to state officials, member Cheryl DeHaven says: “She’s just able to connect with everybody.”