Nearly 30 years ago, A. Kenneth Wuertenberg suffered his own bout with mental illness.
“I had a break from reality,” he said. “My behavior became more erratic and I alienated my family to the point where my marriage was over. I lost my house, my children and my wife.”
It’s a story that Wuertenberg, who is executive director of the Mental Health Association of Franklin/Fulton County, rarely shares.
He shared his story with 300 people who participated Friday in the 13th annual Walk the Walk for mental wellness at Memorial Square in downtown Chambersburg.
“Today, I’m just a regular guy. I live a regular life. I’m no more special or no more different than anyone else,” he said. “But I am one in four who has experienced mental illness sometime in my life — and walked my own pathway to wellness.”
Wuertenberg said he got into the mental-health line of work in part to give others hope that recovery is possible, but also as a form of penance.
“I’m doing penance. I did things and said things that caused hurt that I have to live with,” he said. “The forgiveness of others was hard enough, but far easier than getting forgiveness from myself. It’s one of the things that drives me.”
The event, sponsored by the Mental Health Association of Franklin/Fulton County, is held to promote awareness of mental health as well as solidarity, Wuertenberg said.
The walk began at the borough’s recreation center at the corner of Washington and Third streets in Chambersburg, then traveled to the Franklin County Courthouse for a short rally before returning to the recreation center.
Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections John E. Wetzel spoke at the rally.
“I spent two and a quarter years in Harrisburg now, and it feels like two decades if I’m being honest because there are very few people in Harrisburg who knows what walk the walk means,” he said.
During his time as warden at the Franklin County Jail, Wetzel said he saw many people end up in the criminal justice system due to mental illness.
In 2005, Wetzel said he and Wuertenberg forged a partnership implementing a mental-health program in the jail called peer specialists.
“Our society is better when we do a better job of providing and giving access to services,” Wetzel said.
He said the public has to get to a point where those with mental illness aren’t treated differently.
“Nobody would blame somebody who has an illness,” Wetzel said. “If you get the flu, nobody says, “What did you do to get that flu?”
Dennis Marion, deputy secretary of the Pennsylvania Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, also spoke at the walk.
About 650,000 individuals from across the commonwealth are working their own pathway toward recovery, he said.
“We’re trying to raise everybody’s awareness of mental health and well-being,” Marion said. “Our goal is to improve the general understanding about mental well-being, mental illness, and reduce the misunderstandings and reduce the stigma associated with the illness. We want to emphasize the pathway to recovery and make everyone aware that recovery is possible.”