August 4, 1998

Karen McCowan: Mentally ill find support


Columnist, The Register-Guard

ONCE AGAIN, the nation's attention focuses on an isolated shack in Montana, on an isolated incident of violence by a mentally ill person. After all the coverage of Capitol shooting suspect Russell Eugene Weston Jr., it's a good time to focus on a very different kind of place - a place the opposite of an isolated shack. . A place where people with mental illness come together to support one another in doing what most people try to do: live quiet, peaceful lives among family and friends, neighbors and co-workers.

It's a hot, summer night when I accept an invitation to attend a board meeting at SAFE, a downtown Springfield support center owned and operated by people with a history of mental health treatment. A floor fan moves air over a dozen board members sitting around a long folding table in the group's storefront office beneath the Masonic Temple at 230 Main St.

The meeting is conducted on a first-name-only basis. "We're a social drop-in center, run entirely by people who are mentally ill," explains Sue, the group's bespectacled chairwoman. "I never feel like I'm being judged here, whether I'm goofing off or being serious. And being president of the SAFE board has given me a lot of self-esteem."

"Like most people with labels, we are pretty much ostracized," notes willowy, dark-haired Lilly, the group's secretary. "When I came here, it was the first time I'd ever really felt like part of a community."

"Here, you don't get talked down to like children," adds silver-haired Ron. "Professionals can be so aloof." Even the most well-intended are discouraged under professional guidelines from socializing with clients, noted Sarin, blond, tan and the group's youngest member at 19. "Here, we're on a peer basis, not a counselor-client basis," he said.

The group is an antidote to stigma so severe it can be lethal.

"SAFE stops people from killing themselves," Ron says bluntly. "It's a solution to the social isolation."

"It's a place where you can come and be understood by others," agrees Maureen, a trim, conservatively dressed woman of 50.

"Being understood saved my life," notes Steve, a quiet, middle-aged man in a ball cap. "When I first started coming here, I was homeless and having some difficult reactions to prescription medications. People here believed that I was suicidal, where the doctors didn't."

"We're a voice for consumers of mental health services," adds Mary, a thin, soft-spoken woman. There's a critical need for consumer activism, now that such services have been pared away under state and national tax cuts.

THIS IS A PLACE where it's even safe to joke about one's mental illness. The group's treasurer, Glenn, a big guy in a business suit, makes a pitch for more people to work as "keyholders," staffing the drop-in center.

"You don't have to be crazy," he adds. "But it helps - really."

I look up in surprise. But the rest of the group dissolves in laughter.

Later, there's a similar reaction when burly, bearded Scott interrupts Ron's story about the difference between consumer support and the mental health system. Ron uses teddy bears as an analogy. The "system" tries to hold people up from above, he says. In self-help groups, the stuffed bears stand by leaning on each other.

"So, Ron, tell me," Scott deadpans. "Are those bi-polar bears?"

The group organized in 1994, opening its drop-in center in August 1996. The place, featuring pingpong, an art group, a television lounge and kitchen, is now open five days a week from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. LaneCare, the county's mental health provider, covers $12,000 a year in rent. Operating funds - including the $10 that keyholders are paid for each four-hour shift - come from grants, fund-raisers and donations.

The shifts and work on SAFE special events offer members the satisfaction of a paycheck and the opportunity to gain some job skills.

"It's a chance to break out of the mental health system, government dole cycle and build an employment rapport with some other businesses," explains Sarin. "I actually feel useful here." Scott agrees. "One of our favorite sayings around here is that the best treatment program is a job," he adds.

Every Friday night, there's a SAFE coffee house, with Scott and his wife, both musicians, hosting.

"One important thing we do is demonstrate that people with psychiatric disabilities can in fact be very functional," Scott says.

But SAFE also exists for those times when people aren't functioning so well. The group operates a "Warm Line" (988-9570) for such times.

"That's also where the pull of the group comes in," Ron says. "Sometimes helping someone else get out of bed can get you out of bed."

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