Mental health centers help victims connect
by Mike Murphy, Detroit
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In the 32 years since he was first diagnosed with a mental
illness, Robert Johnson has boiled the essence of his disease
down to one chilling word -- isolation.
"That's basically what it is," said Johnson, who said he was
hospitalized once every three years since 1970 because of his
disorder. In between, he has weaved in and out of employment
as a dishwasher, a landscaper and a truck driver.
Johnson often felt alone as he battled to restructure his life
with advances in medical treatments.
But Johnson attributes part of his improved health to Suburban
Nights, a Livonia drop-in center run for and by people with
Suburban Nights first opened its doors in 1990, and the center
represents part of what health care professionals and mental
health advocates describe as a trend toward consumer-run
mental health programs. The programs place some part of
recovery in the hands of the mentally ill, a device that also
helps eliminate the feeling of isolation as the illness takes
Drop-in centers run by recovering victims have become so
important that federal mental health agencies mandate that at
least one such center be established in all Michigan counties.
Suburban Nights is operated at Lincoln Behavioral Services,
home of the Gathering Place, a more structured day program for
the mentally ill but staffed by mental health care
Alice Meng, a social worker and Lincoln's director of
rehabilitation services, is a liaison to Suburban Nights. Meng
said her role in Suburban Nights is primarily advisory.
"They do the budget and shopping and arrange all their own
outings. They organize everything for themselves," Meng said.
Staffed by people in various stages of recovery from illnesses
such as schizophrenia, epilepsy, depression, and bipolar and
schizo-affective disorders, the 10 drop-in centers in Wayne
County provide its participants a chance to break through the
wall of isolation that Johnson knows so well.
"We know where people are coming from because we've been
there, and we're more accepting to the situation that they're
going through," said Jenny Pospishel, who serves alongside
Johnson as a Suburban Nights staff member.
The pair are employed by the county to make sure food is
served and entertainment and events are planned for the
center, which is open from 4-9 p.m. weekdays and from noon to
9 p.m. on Saturdays. Events include dances, pool tournaments,
ice cream socials, park outings, trips to a nearby shopping
mall and regular meetings with organizations such as the
Manic-Depressive and Depressive Association and Schizophrenics
But much of the time at the drop-in center is left open and
Free time in a safe environment is important, said Lori Stark,
a licensed psychotherapist.
Stark directed a field research project for the University of
Michigan, assessing the state's consumer-centered mental
health services. In many of the nearly 1,000 interviews
conducted at 31 Michigan drop-in centers, many participants
said they liked the way the programs were organized.
"Many of the places available through the mental health system
are about treatment," Stark said. "These places are not about
being treated. They're just places to go where people can
Michigan's first drop-in center opened in Lansing in 1980,
when the Ingham County Community Mental Health Agency, prodded
by the Lansing-based mental health advocacy group Justice In
Mental Health Organization, agreed to provide funding for a
center. The Lansing group continues to run the center, and the
organization now has 52 affiliate centers statewide.
The first center paid for by Wayne County opened in southwest
Detroit in the mid-1980s. Felicia Simpson, Wayne County
Community Mental Health's coordinator of adult services, said
the agency would like to fund more centers.
"We would like to see more because we believe more consumers
need the service," Simpson said. "Consumers can help each
other out, and we recognize that this is something positive
Kimberly Botorowicz, a Suburban Nights staffer, said the
support she provides is reciprocated.
"I help people," Botorowicz said. "Sometimes, just to smile at
people helps. It helps me feel better, too."
Meng said there is a growing demand for the drop-in centers
from both victims of mental illness and mental health
advocates. One reason, she said, is that they want a stake in
the treatment of the diseases.
"The empowerment of consumers is coming more and more to the
forefront of mental health treatment," Meng said. "They used
to be the passive recipients. Now they're saying, 'I want
more. I want my life back.' "