Mental health patients turn more to each other
Apr. 22--Jim Bina was feeling good. And that made him nervous.
The Naperville man had struggled with depression for decades, and he had learned to distrust happiness as an illusion that masked an approaching crisis.
It might sound like an unusual problem, but when he mentioned it one recent night in a hospital conference room, most of those listening nodded in recognition.
Bina, 54, had come to a support group for people with mental illness, run by people with mental illness. It offered them a chance to discuss and maybe get help for problems that, all too often, their friends, families and even therapists didn't seem to understand.
How do you feel comfortable at social gatherings when everyone there knows you tried to kill yourself? Should you abandon your religious faith if you're prone to thinking that you're God? How do you handle your illness when your child has it, too?
"A doctor can read about it, but he doesn't know it firsthand," Bina said later. "Here, they get it. You're preaching to the choir. They know exactly what you're talking about."
The group, based at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove, is a sign of a new direction in the treatment of mental illness. Those who suffer from it are increasingly being recognized as the best authorities on how to overcome it.
"For those who have lived the experience, it empowers (them) to really be the driving force for change," said Pat Doyle of the DuPage County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which organizes the group. "Where those voices were silenced in the past, they're now being heard."
The idea of people with mental illness helping one another has been around since the 1930s, stemming from the work of Chicago neuropsychiatrist Abraham Low. He started by leading patients in group therapy sessions, but in time turned the entire process over to them.
Still, doctors, psychologists and other professionals usually remained at the center of treatment. It was only about 10 years ago that it started to change.
Dr. Kenneth Thompson of the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, said people with mental illness took cues from the civil rights movement and began advocating for themselves. Part of that meant getting more involved in their own treatment -- and helping others who were in the same situation.
"It's very important to feel connected," Thompson said. "Unfortunately, professional advice does not necessarily make people feel like they belong."
In Illinois, the state hospitals hired "recovery specialists" -- people who have successfully managed their own mental illnesses -- to offer advice, understanding and perspective to patients. They often help the patients plan strategies for maintaining their mental health after they're released.
Nanette Larson, director of recovery support services for the state's Division of Mental Health, said she had no hard data to measure the effectiveness of that approach, but the anecdotal evidence has been encouraging.
"Instead of seeing an individual five times in the course of a year, that person has a (recovery) plan, and we haven't seen them again," she said.
Susan Piasecki, 30, had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder when she was introduced to the concept of peer support. She attended a lecture in which two people described their journeys through mental illness, and she found the talk so inspiring that she began speaking publicly about her own experience.
"These illnesses can really make a person feel broken and lost," she said. "When I heard about things that were hopeful, that's what drew me in."
Her work with the National Alliance on Mental Illness eventually led to a job at Good Samaritan, where she leads groups for active psychiatric patients and for those who are trying to make the best of living with a mental illness.
The latter group drew 16 people to the hospital recently for a 90-minute discussion. The participants, whose illnesses ranged from schizophrenia to anxiety to depression, sat in a circle and stated their first names and diagnoses. Then they described what the past week had been like.
"I went to see my psychiatrist. She tweaked my meds and I'm finally sleeping," said one man, raising his hands above his head triumphantly.
Others didn't have such good news. One spoke about problems with his Medicaid benefits, another about her unwise decision to mix a Long Island iced tea with psychiatric medication. Family trouble and job worries were common.
One gray-haired man was happy to have landed a volunteer job in a food pantry, but he added that with two children in college, he needed to find paying work soon. The problem was that his mind still felt slow. He had been a software engineer, he said, but now even simple paperwork left him baffled.
A 30-something named Ali, who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, said he had endured the same thing, but practice and perseverance allowed him to fight through it.
"It took a lot of time, ups and downs, but I feel my mind is a lot faster now," Ali said.
For most problems that came up, members of the group proposed solutions. Trouble sleeping? Concentrate on the spinning blades of a ceiling fan, or buy a device that mimics the sound of the ocean. Feeling low? Try a service that sends a daily affirmation to your cell phone.
Other issues, though, had no ready answers.
An older man named Greg, who was recovering from schizoaffective and post-traumatic stress disorders, said that despite all his years of successfully managing his illnesses, his family didn't seem to trust him.
"I still feel like a second-class citizen," he said. "My family still holds that stigma. Once you're sick, you're sick for the rest of your life and it'll never change."
Others chimed in that they often felt like outcasts, too. But that, one man suggested, was exactly why they kept coming back to the group.
"When you're down you can get support," he said. "When you're up you can support someone else."