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 Article of Interest - Mental Illness

Mental health centers help victims connect
by Mike Murphy, Detroit News, 9-25-02
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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 psychiatric disabilities.

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 hold.

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 professionals.

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 Anonymous.

But much of the time at the drop-in center is left open and unstructured.

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 relax."

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 that helps."

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.' "


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