When I was thirty-five, I saw a new doctor for a routine checkup. He asked a series of questions that eventually wound their way towards my mood, and the next thing I knew I was referred to a psychiatrist who asked me even more questions about my mood. Then she handed me a crisp new prescription for lithium and pronounced me bipolar. I didn’t know what that meant, so she explained. And I smiled.
Her description of the highs and lows associated with bipolar disorder made her sound like a tour guide checking off points of interest in my life. Wild bouts of reckless behavior like over-spending myself into inevitable financial ruin? Check. Loss of interest in anything important, directly resulting in loss of job, house and girlfriend? Got it. The sensation that I’m standing on the pinnacle of the top of the world just before I slip and fall to my doom? Been there, done that. Twice.
So, here was this psychiatrist not only informing me that these feelings and situations, these highs and lows, were the result of an actual, treatable disorder with a name and everything, but holding in her hand a slip of paper with which I could obtain pills to curtail those highs and lows. She provided me with actual, empirical evidence that I am not, in fact, an inherent screw-up destined for failure; I have a disorder for which I can take medication. I spend a great deal of time learning coping skills, honing stress management skills, shining light on some of the darker places in my head and learning to really love me, flaws and all. With a diagnosis and a slip of paper, my psychiatrist set me on the journey that eventually led me to Fountain House.
On my third day here, I wrote this article for the Fountain House Weekly newspaper and the FH Blog. When I was thirty-five, before the diagnosis and the slip of paper, this would not have been possible. I’m hopeful.
Last week, a letter about the new Silver Program went to 400 members. “It’s about time,” said one of those members as she read it. Silver is a word the Japanese use for senior citizen. If you didn’t receive a letter, you haven’t reached your sixtieth birthday yet. Along with the letter was a survey asking what older members need help with. Those members who answered the survey said that they need help with jobs, food, housing, medical care, home attendants, getting a reach-out visit, finding something to do, and taking a trip to High Point Farm. The fact that thirty percent of Fountain House’s active members are over 60 is, in the words of Michael Friedman, former director of the Geriatric Mental Health Alliance of New York (GMHANY), “an astounding, almost publishable statistic.” On average, people with mental illness die ten to twenty years younger than the general population. We proudly say that membership in Fountain House is lifetime, yet as Michael Friedman also asked, “Is it really lifetime membership if it ends the minute you can’t get to the clubhouse?” What does having so many older members mean for Fountain House? Some of us Silver members come into the clubhouse every day; others find the atmosphere too hectic and stay away. Some members are confined to nursing homes or their apartment. The current director of GMHANY, Kim Williams, suggested a conference call as a way to keep in touch. We have been holding such calls since March 2013, and they have proven to be a great way to connect people members across New York City and even as far away as Boston! Susan Lieblich, Unit Leader of the Education Unit, began working at Fountain House in 1980. She says, “I have had the privilege of knowing many members and staff over the years. Many have been precious jewels in my life. In a sense, we have been aging together. I have come to recognize that - as we get older - new needs, situations, and solutions come into play. Resources are limited and not obvious to the overall Fountain House community. Isolation is a problem as your mobility becomes limited." In response to our over-60 crowd we have developed a small working group of members and staff dedicated to developing solutions to the challenges of being older. This is going to become an increasingly important project since Fountain House itself is 66 years old, and many of us are getting on in years. Staying connected, caring about each other, referring people in need of good quality programs and residential settings are what we are about and must continue to be about. What has Fountain House done to connect with Silver members? Susan’s unit, the Education Unit, has made reach-out visits to members in nursing homes a unit activity. The next logical step is to extend this program to more nursing homes and homebound members. We’ve also helped one member in a local nursing home arrange two visits to Fountain House. We hope to bring other members back to the clubhouse and their old units. Peter M., a member of Fountain House since 1981, tells of his experience when he was treated for cancer and what the Fountain House community means: “Reaching out to senior members shows people care for them. When I was in the hospital and I received visits from members it made me feel so good. This applies to senior members. They don’t want to be forgotten. Senior members in nursing homes mostly stay in the facility, which leads to loneliness and despair. Most don’t have family to visit them. They want more mobility. When a senior member receives a visit from Fountain House, they light up. They see members from the good old days. “Also on the group telephone call to senior members, they are elated. Hearing from members young and old is deeply appreciated and exciting. One senior member received a pass from his nursing facility. He was happy to see the old members—I saw the twinkle in his eyes. I call him Brook. I said ’Brook! You didn’t lose your macho.’ Don’t forget the senior members. These senior members helped build the foundation of what Fountain House is today.” Besides reach-out and in-house visits, the Silver Program is making phone calls as often as possible to members who can’t get to 47th Street, and we plan to distribute a list of their phone numbers to the units and to other members in nursing homes. We hope to develop an aging-in-place program for the older members who have their own apartments. Aging-in-place is a term used to describe programs that provide assistance so people can stay at home. It is often cheaper to provide a home care attendant and a visiting nurse than to move someone to a nursing home. The Silver Program has many plans for the future. The group is planning to hold a monthly coffeehouse at 441, Fountain House’s senior residence, for Silver members. We will produce a section in the Fountain House Weekly newspaper with news about older members and a monthly Silver Newsletter. We want to plant a garden; gardening is an activity people young and old enjoy.
At some point we may ask our Development department to try to secure funding for things such as salaries for one or two staff members, a van for in reach and outreach visits, an assisted living center, a petty cash fund for outreach cab, bus, and subway fare and phones for members who can’t afford them. Jonathan Brachman, Norman Feldman, Susan Lieblich, and Peter Maraia Silver Project, Fountain House
Crisis Intervention Teams would help the NYPD better respond to the more than 100,000 “emotionally distressed person” (“EDP”) calls that they receive annually. While responding to EDP calls last year, the NYPD reported 56 incidents in which people were accidentally injured or killed by police gunfire. CITs would aim to de-escalate these situations, thereby diverting people experiencing a mental health crisis from the criminal justice system; minimizing the risk of added trauma, injury, or death to these people; and instilling confidence in family members who seek help from emergency services for their loved ones in crisis.
The speakers were eloquent and represented different perspectives on the topic. My personal favorites were Sahar Khoshakhlagh and long-time Fountain House friend, Fred Levine. Ms. Khoshakhlagh was accidentally shot by police officers trying to subdue a man behaving erratically in Times Square while experiencing a psychotic episode. (Ironically, the man, Glenn Broadnax, has been charged with assault on the basis that he is responsible for the injury to Ms. Khoshakhlagh and another bystander.) Ms. Khoshakhlagh, coincidentally a mental health worker, now feels that it is her duty to help police better understand how to deal with people in emotional crisis.
Fred Levine offered remarks from his own experience of actually being a person in emotional distress subject to police intervention. The content of his speech was great but even more powerful was his accomplished and articulate demeanor – a potent reminder that, for most people in the midst of crises of this kind, it’s simply a bad moment in time, not their abiding character and certainly not a crime.
The press conference marked the launch of a public awareness campaign to support the passage of the Crisis Intervention Act, a bill introduced by State Senator Kevin Parker that would mandate the creation of CITs. It was exciting to see the Fountain House Advocacy Committee in action at this event. However, legislative battles aren’t won in a day. If you’re a New Yorker interested in this issue, please join us and become part of the Communities for Crisis Teams in NYC coalition.
Andrea Roy Communications Director, Fountain House
Fountain House is pleased to announce that it has formed a new partnership - with Charlotte Bridge Home, a community-based organization, which helps veterans in Charlotte, NC transition home after military service; JRC Advisors, LLC, a consulting firm founded and led by John Campbell, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Office of Warrior Care Policy; and Threshold GlobalWorks, LLC, which designs and implements social impact initiatives - to de
Authentic. Real. Down-to-earth. These were my immediate impressions of Professor Elyn Saks and of her husband, Will. Elyn was invited to Fountain House to present an award to Dr. Ralph Aquila for his 20 years of service to our members and to the mental health community. She was asked to meet with a group of members, colleagues, staff, and friends prior to that event. Here is my view of that discussion.
After Jeff Aron’s wonderful introduction, Elyn immediately asked for us to go around the room and introduce ourselves, which not only put everyone at ease, but helped open the floor to a more in-depth talk. Interestingly, all of the members were keen to learn more about not only her writing itself, but the process she underwent to complete her book, The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness.
I think all of us expressed gratitude to her for her very public stance on her experiences with chronic schizophrenia, both in her book, as well as numerous media appearances, such as the TED Talk in 2012. She laid out for us the source of her recovery and success. There were three main areas she talked about.
The first part of recovery was recognizing not only the need for her to take medication but also for regular, weekly sessions of psychoanalysis. The second component was the tremendous support of family and friends. And the third component was having a work environment that was also extremely supportive and helpful.
It is here that I can compare my own experiences with mental illness - in my case it is manic-depression, otherwise diagnosed as Bipolar I - to hers. For me, it is very important to have the right and proper medication and therapy and the support of family, friends, employers and co-workers, but I also need something else that I believe Elyn would agree with. (She did later in the course of the discussion.) That is having a community like Fountain House, which provides what I consider the “fourth leg” of recovery to help maintain both mental and physical health, and an environment that focuses on the member’s strengths and not the illness.
In closing, Elyn said that she believes the following: we need to provide more research for effective and safe medical treatments in order to improve the lives of individuals who live with the challenges of severe mental illness. Next, we must stop criminalizing mental illness. And lastly, we should encourage both the entertainment industry and media to provide better and more accurate portrayals of mental illness to combat stigma and show “the humanity we all share.”
Thank you Elyn and Will for your honesty, integrity, and a great sense of humor, and for showing me and others that we are not alone in this battle.