Virtually unknown and almost obscure are the Birch Tree Communities that are grappling with a complex human problem: the struggle to cope with mental illness. 

In Conway, Birch facilities are leading people on unique recovery journeys in the belief that for every person living with mental illness there is a real expectation of recovery.

Birch has facilities on Lower Ridge Road, where clients are treated with the essential mental health tools at hand hoping that a satisfying life in the community will accrue from the treatment received. Other Birch facilities are located on Fourth Avenue, Robins Street, and Palarm Creek Road. It also maintains duplex living facilities and some apartments. 

The mantra of Birch is to make a full life possible for those stricken with mental illness, for them to live in a society free of stigma so that individuals recovering from illness will be free to choose where they live, socialize and work.

Says a mother in the community who has been shepherding her son through the valleys of mental health processes for some time and who now has him ensconced in a Birch group home, "I’m ecstatic about the outcome of his treatment." 

She said without equivocation that "Birch gave us our life back." That may sound like high praise, but other comments about the Birch mental service are just as laudable. Overcoming or at least coping with such debilitating ailments as schizophrenia, bi-polar disease and depression, among others, are part of the organization’s strategic plan.

Birch began operations as a private, non-profit corporation in July 1989 on the campus of the Benton Services Center — once the Benton State Hospital — in facilities leased from the state. It had 36 "members" and 32 staff. In 1995, the system headquarters moved from the Benton Services Center to a location in the city of Benton.

Today, Birch has an enrollment of more than 425 members and a staff of about 550.

Its growth has been impressive. Birch has grown far beyond the original design into a system with 12 locations around Arkansas, including Conway, Ash Flat, Benton, Clarksville, Clinton, England, Hope, Malvern, Melbourne, Newport, Mountain View and the Arkansas Health Center. 

The organization is directed by notable mental health professionals who have been part of the system for many years, including Herman Harley, who is the chief executive officer, and Tucker Steinmetz, director of clinical supervision who designed the Birch system.

The origin of Birch can be traced to a historical happening when a courageous woman who had spent more than three decades on the campus, going back to the days of the State Hospital, led the way to independence. 

Birch officials said, "Her successful move into independent living in Benton spurred the hope of many others. Since then, because of the intriguing notion of independent living, many men and women have been able to return to successful community living all over Arkansas. That brave woman who led the way is still a productive member of society." 

The effectiveness of Birch’s protocol is, according to Luke Kramer, director of training and development, based on the philosophy that says, "The person is central to the process of developing a course of action leading to recovery. We work to be guides rather than experts; our efforts support the person’s individual plan."

And these plans are many; some members opt to work in the community, others attend schools and colleges (several are enrolled in the University of Central Arkansas). Many live independently in group homes or apartments.

Individuals seeking amelioration from mental illness come to Birch communities from the Arkansas State Hospital, other mental health facilities and from referrals from family or guardians. They receive treatment for psychiatric illnesses or disorders and depression. Help also accrues from family and friends support groups that meet each month. 

Birch is accommodating plans, said spokesman Kramer "to develop new programs for the under-served groups of men and women with serious mental illness." 

Birch operates under the Community Mental Health umbrella, but it differs from Counseling Associates in that it is a 24-hour daily venture.