Thursday, April 26, 2012

Gathering Hope House saving people worth saving!

     Soon after the psychological symptoms of mental illness subside, the afflicted individual takes account of the personal devastation in their life. Loved ones, family members and friends now classify that person as simply unfit to belong in their moral universe. With that, a process of exclusion begins to unfold, and the afflicted falls into the malaise of loneliness, segregation and depression. All this becomes an added burden as they struggle to recover, and many times, this leads to a relapse because the necessary support is not present.
     In Lorain County, in a small, nondescript building located just off North Ridge Road; there is a place for these unfortunate individuals to go, and begin the process of recovery. It is a place where dignity is restored, where false hope becomes real hope, and where lives that once seemed destined for an ominous ending can flourish, and individuals can become productive members of society. It is a place aptly named “The Gathering Hope House.”
     There is such a misconception of what recovery from mental illness entails. Conventional wisdom is when a person is diagnosed with an illness; they are handed some pills, and sent out into the world with instructions to get better. Though that is woefully inadequate, it is often the extent of treatment. This facility aims to augment the medication, and encourage the idea that physical, emotional and mental health is all part of the process of recovery.
     The mission of this home is simple, “Recovery Happens.” This objective is accomplished by stressing self efficacy and promoted through volunteering and developing work experiences. Currently, 60 to 80 people seek help there on a daily basis, with most being transported from the NORD center group homes, a local mental health treatment facility in Lorain County. Unfortunately, the census is down slightly because they have lost the services of one of their transport vans. Hopefully, that can be corrected, and more afflicted can develop a productive life at this place of unending hope.
     When someone enters this building, it is difficult to comprehend that this is a mental health facility. On the wall, there is a multicolored sign to greet visitors that simply reads, “Recovery”. At no time will anyone see doctors walking around, or nurses screaming for medication to calm a patient. What the public discovers are that this is a center that is staffed, managed and utilized by “Consumers”; which is a name given to people who have a mental illness and are seeking, or receiving treatment. They have created an environment that is highly successful stressing peer support, and volunteerism as a means of achieving positive goals and outcomes. It is also a place where the clientele can go to have social contact, have coffee with peers and for perhaps the first time in a long time, feel normal.
     To better illustrate the importance of such programs; an old TV show speaks volumes. In the old iconic sitcom, “Cheers, the opening theme song had a verse that said “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.” Similarly, at Gathering Hope House, an individual can go where they are not judged by the symptoms of an illness, they are not dehumanized, nor are they ostracized. People are there to offer encouragement to better themselves, and to regain or find the valuable happy lives everyone is entitled to live. With this as a goal, many do succeed.
     As a fellow consumer who suffered many indignities because of an illness, I feel this support is vital in overcoming the stigma of these disorders, which is always a considerable roadblock to recovery. The basis for such a supportive environment begins at the top.
     Traci Jacobs, who suffers from Bipolar Disorder, found herself in need of help. She was on Social Security Disability, and her life was in limbo with little hope for the future. It was at that time that she accepted her illness, and sought help from a private psychiatrist. She knew it would be a long road full of ups and downs, but she was determined to succeed.
     In 2005, shortly after the opening of Gathering Hope House, Traci began there as an intern and volunteer. With the support of this agency and her peers, she began to improve, returned to school, and eventually graduated from Case Western Reserve with a degree in Social Work. This would be a qualified success story in itself, but it does not stop there.
     Today, Traci is the Executive Director of The Gathering Hope House and stands as an example of what is being accomplished in this facility. Thanks to her fellow peers, who helped restore her self-worth and confidence, she has long since left the confines of public assistance. She now contributes a vast amount to society by helping others to achieve success.
     It is easy to understand why there are positive outcomes just by dropping into this center. As a visitor walks through this facility, they are struck by the art work that adorns the walls. It is then that they discover that nearly all of it was created by people seeking a better life at this home. The talent on display is magnificent and shows the tremendous untapped potential of the clientele that are striving to become once again, productive citizens.
     When a stop is made at the cafeteria, the visitor is awe-struck at the layout. It is as if the person is transported back to a 1950’s soda shop. It is such an inspiring design by men and women, to have such a positive environment where they can gather in and share a time of just being “normal”. As with everything else, “consumers” work in the “cafe”, cook and shop for the food that is served. With this, like everything else at this home, many develop future job skills, and most importantly, they can feel a sense of self-improvement. 
The 1950's style cafeteria.

     A short distance from there is a computer lab, and with it, people can find more future job skills training on display. The local department store “Macy’s”, has partnered with this home, to provide computer training for afflicted ones. With this, more men and women can have some of their self-worth restored with the prospects of a job, removing more individuals from public assistance. Macy’s should be lauded for this contribution as it has improved the quality of life for many unfortunate individuals.
The Computer lab. Training provided by Macy's Department store.
     As the public continues exploring this home, people can see the art room, the fitness center, and a thrift store where individuals can purchase slightly used clothing. Again, consumers manage these different programs, and the proceeds go to fund other activities. 
The Thrift Shop.
     This facility has educational programs where people can get their GED’s, because these illnesses have limited the lives of many; some have never finished high school. The individuals participate in groups with their main focus is on recovery and betterment. This is an essential component in the recovery process, as this can lead to increased likelihood of securing employment. After which, there is an added benefit, because many men and women like the director Traci Jacobs, go on to college and earn degrees. All because of peer support, which helps restore an individual’s dignity.
     Carol H, another consumer, is another example that recovery is possible and that mental illness is not a death sentence. At one time, she suffered the debilitating effects of agoraphobia, a condition which inhibits the ability of the afflicted one to leave their own home. With the support of her family, she did seek help and slowly began to get better. In time, she volunteered at the NORD center, earned a job, and today is coordinator of the Recovery Center at the Gathering Hope House. Here, again, is another person who had the courage to face her illness, leave Social Security Disability, and is now making a valuable contribution both clinically and financially to the community.
     To establish the confidence that this center has in the afflicted one’s ability to recover, the ultimate goal is to have 51% of the board of Gathering Hope House to be consumers themselves. That can fuel even more positive outcomes for people who can now aim to become leaders in the community, and it starts right in that facility.
     As previously mentioned, a barrier that individuals face when diagnosed with a mental illness is the stigma associated with it. People are defined by the general public as bipolar, schizophrenics, or mental’s, which is police vernacular for people with mental illness, not as men and women in need of treatment.  When they enter the doors of this facility, they are known as people, not a conglomeration of symptoms. Traci Jacobs insists that people “Save the Labels for the jars, not the people” and with this; they enter a realm of acceptance and hope.
     From personal experience, I can attest to the belief that after mental illness devastates your life, the person losses hope. They find the road to recovery covered with a dreary hopelessness that never ends. The Gathering Hope House restores that lost dream of a happy, fulfilling life. In the critically acclaimed movie, “The Shawshank Redemption”, there was a powerful scene discussing this very subject. It was said; “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” At this center, hope is the hallmark of their mission, and with that, lives can be restored.
     We live in a time that the concept of heroism has become convoluted. Athletes, who excel on the playing fields, are idolized as false prophets. If people are searching for true heroes, individuals who have the proper fortitude to overcome challenges, a visit to this center will show them what courage is all about. They are men and woman who have struggled against illnesses and after defeating their affliction, stand arm and arm with those that still walk the treacherous road between wellness and sickness. They are generous, they are empathetic, and they have become true difference makers.
     In conclusion, Lorain County has a gem to be proud of. They have programs and a center that is a true investment in people, and it pays a substantial dividend. It brings people from the brink of desperation, back to life. It takes people off public assistance and allows them to contribute in a positive manner to their community. They do something so rare in these times of government scandals and such; they use their resources to save lives. No one can dispute the significance of that contribution!
     I must add a request. This center is in dire need of a van for transportation and here is an appeal to the community. If anyone can find a way to donate for this important part of their mission, which is transportation, please contact Traci Jacobs. I know many people will appreciate it, especially those whose lives will be enriched by it!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Mike Wallace and Me; Depression, Suicide and Survival!

     This past weekend marked the end of an era and a life, Mike Wallace, the long time 60 Minutes correspondent passed away at the age of 93. It is ironic that I can share a commonality with this man, though, not as a writer. He was a famous, award winning journalist, and I am, and will always be, just an amateur writer without delusions that I can achieve his greatness. In fact, he and I are from nearly opposite sides of the political spectrum, as I am more in line with his son Chris, a Fox news commentator, so politics is not the corresponding ground.  No, that is not what we shared; it was a disease, and one that nearly killed both of us!
    It is difficult for many to learn that mental illness is non-discriminatory and that it can affect someone at any age. When the public listens to such a respected and apparently healthy man talk about hitting the “dark malaise”, and trying to end their life as Mike Wallace once did, many will take notice. He once spoke in front a congressional committee to argue for more funds for research of depression, so he put his name on contributing to help other people who were suffering. Those arguments continue to this very day, and it is a battle we are losing.
     It was prior to being diagnosed, and with ever increasing hopelessness that Mr. Wallace decided to attempt to end his life with pills, and even left a note. Fortunately, his wife found him and his life was saved. Not many years after that, I did a similar action on two occasions, as it became the only solution to ending the silent, and powerful, emotional pain. Like Mr. Wallace, my life was saved, but it eventually led to some life altering experiences. Again, we shared the miraculous intervention of someone saving our own lives, and we both decided to reach out to other similarly afflicted with such clouded thoughts.
     The public has so many misconceptions and false fears about mental illness. The ignorance displayed in the form of stigmatizing those afflicted is an issue devilishly difficult to overcome, but Mike Wallace did just that. He interviewed and challenged some of the most powerful and treacherous leaders in the world, and always did it with dignity and intellect. Because of his work and not letting his affliction stand in the way, the journey of recovery became just a little easier for people who followed him.
     To better illustrate, many will find it incredible that in spite of battling a mental illness, and of surviving a suicide attempt, he was to go on and win many awards and the respect of many people. His final award was presented to him just four years ago at the age of 89. This was quite an accomplishment for someone with an illness that a percentage of the population still considers a character flaw, or a weakness. No one will ever accuse Mike Wallace of being weak emotionally, being of limited intellect and most importantly, that he ever possessed a flawed character.
    With my work in mental health, I have met several prominent individuals, though I never met Mike Wallace. However, in most of my talks, I did consider him up as a positive example, one who overcame mental illness and exceeded at life. If I had met him, I would have liked to sit down over a beer and discus not what I could do to improve as a writer, but a subject more momentous. I would have compared notes on what it was like to eventually recover, and how it felt for him to stand up as such a courageous role model which helped many people suffering in silence. I would have liked to ask him what more people like us could do to create more insight and understanding to the general public? What more can we do to assist people who continue to suffer in a prison of silence like he and I experienced?
     Mike Wallace will be remembered for his contributions to journalism and all the awards he deservedly won. However, his having the courage to admit he suffered from a mental illness and tried to kill himself will undoubtedly contribute too many frightened individuals deciding to get help and prevent more tragedies. His speaking out to let people know not to suffer in silence and to get help has saved lives. That contribution to humanity, though never quantified, will have an even greater impact than much of his work as a journalist!
     Rest in peace, and thank you Mike Wallace, the world is a better place because of you!