Published On: Fri, May 31st, 2019

Merilee Middleton: a Pioneer in Local Mental Health Counseling

By: C. Ron Allen

Dr. Merrilee R. Middleton, a psychologist who helped change the public perception of mental illness, is being remembered for bringing mental health counseling to thousands of South Floridians who may not otherwise have been able to afford it.

As of press time, Dr. Middleton, 86, was in hospice care at her home in Boca Raton. Her public legacy in Palm Beach County is massive and impressive: In a career spanning more than 50 years, she led the way in providing crucial services for those with mental illness in the School District of Palm Beach County. She also is credited with creating counseling services and practicing up and down the eastern United States, picking up seemingly every civic award along the way. And yet, it was her human, personal touch that lingers in the minds of those who knew her.

“Merrilee has been a staunch supporter of quality mental health services for decades and will be remembered as a pioneer in this work. She will always be a shining star,” said Dr. Seth Bernstein, vice president of Boca Raton’s Promise, a nonprofit to which Dr. Middleton gave birth.

The organization creates outreach programs and activities to bring awareness and resources to those in need and their families.

Dr. Merrilee R. Middleton

Dr. Middleton’s impact on mental health care in Palm Beach County would be difficult to exaggerate. After moving to Boca Raton in the late 1960s, she worked as a counselor at Boca Raton High School before serving as a program specialist in secondary education for district.

In 1968, while pursuing her Education Specialist degree from Florida Atlantic University, Dr. Middleton and then Stetson (Deland) University professor and psychologist Elizabeth H. Faulk established counseling services and trainings for hundreds of people in Palm Beach and Broward counties.

Faulk started the Elizabeth Faulk Foundation in 1970, which, three years later, led to establishment of the Center for Group Counseling. The center operated for a decade in a rented storefront downtown until it moved, in 1981, to its present site on Boca Rio Road on donated land from Palm Beach County.

Today, the center is a site for graduate student training, support groups, and counseling and therapy for people who may not be able to afford private mental health care.

Dr.  Middleton served as clinical and training director at the Center while earning her doctorate from Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale.

During the Bush administration, the center was designated as the country’s 813th Point of Light in recognition of its emphasis on volunteerism.

I first met “Doc” in 1998 when then retired U.S. Army Gen. Colin Powell visited Florida Atlantic University at the invitation of Dr. Middleton and the late Dan Weppner, a retired FAU professor who was a devout advocate of public schools and student volunteerism.

Powell also helped launched Boca Raton’s Promise – The Alliance For Youth, the local affiliate of his national nonprofit America’s Promise.

Then governor, Lawton Chiles, invited her the previous year to be one of five State delegates to organize “Communities of Promise” in Florida and attend the Presidential Summit for America’s Youth in Philadelphia.

I worked closely with her on several youth mental health initiatives and I saw how passionate she was about the topic. She had a way of conveying the seriousness of the illness while maintaining an unforced conversational delivery, which was warm as the voice of an informed companion.

“She lived some of those experiences in her own life,” said Rita Thrasher, a longtime trusted friend, protégé, caretake and current president & CEO of Boca Raton’s Promise. “She understood. She appreciated.”

“Doc” was at the onset of recognizing and acknowledging the importance of stress in the lives of children. This was long before we appreciated how long-lasting the effects of trauma are in early life and adolescence.

As she organized and executed the peer counseling programs, Dr. Middleton saw how the students were learning to work together and to better understand themselves and others.

In the 1960s and 1970s, she worked to advance the concept of peer counseling for teenagers — the idea that support groups led by peers rather than authority figures would be most effective for young people in need of guidance.

She launched a very significant preventative concept when she taught high school students to essentially say to their friends, ‘I’m worried about you . . . I’m concerned. I miss the old you.’

Back then, the notion that kids were pretty resilient, that they could take things and bounce back, was quite common. But she helped us, over time, to realize how formative those years are in long-term emotional health, and how those early years chart the course for somebody’s life forever.

“She wanted them to be connected and listened to,” Thrasher said. “She wanted them to become guided. It’s up to the youths to listen to their pers. You must utilize their talents, their skills.”

A native of Hazelhurst, Georgia, Dr. Middleton earned a BS in Business Education from Stetson University. There, she and Faulk assisted Dr. George Hood in creating Stetson’s first counseling center.  Her skill for listening compassionately followed her as a guidance counselor at Fairfax High School in Virginia where she was encouraged to seek advanced studies.

She continued in academia earning a master’s from Peabody College in Nashville, where she was invited to membership in Peabody’s Business Honor Society which led to an internship at the Pentagon in Washington D.C.

One of her highlights was completing requirements to be listed in the National Registry for Group Psychology as a Certified Group Psychologist.

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