By Gioia Ackerman, Residential Case Manager, Supportive Housing
When people with a mental illness move into the neighborhood, stigma moves in with them. There is no welcome wagon. No one rings the bell or brings a tray of cookies. “For Sale” signs start popping up on neighbors’ lawns. Like all other prejudices, stigma towards people with a mental illnesss is fueled by fear and lack of knowledge and understanding. This is intensified by concern about harm to one’s family or loss of property value. Much is publicized about crimes committed by those with mental illness that are untreated and have no supports in place. Nothing is heard of those who are quietly working hard to be accepted and improve the quality of their lives; those under doctor’s care, who take their meds, attend all programs and avail themselves of all the supports put in place for them. This population must work hard to overcome stigma, and prove they can be good neighbors. I find this to be ironic, since we all know of a relative, neighbor, spouse, friend or coworker who is accepted in the community, suffering from unchecked and untreated mental illness. This should be the real cause for fear.
As a Caseworker in a home which uses the supportive housing model, my job is to facilitate and support five individuals in their transition to independent living, and to serve as a bridge between these clients and the community that is so often reluctant to embrace them. I work in an attractive home on a quiet street which is well kept and well managed. To the unfamiliar it may be “The House Where They Live”. Step inside, and you will find a warm home with five people who are someone’s sons and daughters, a mother, a brother, a sister, a niece, a nephew, aunts and uncles, a girlfriend, someone’s best friend, all now living together and calling themselves, “family.” Like any family, they laugh and cry together, watch T.V., play Wii. They support and comfort each other through hard times or the death of a family member. They cook together and share household chores. They must work to incorporate their individual personalities into one cohesive unit. In this house they do it well.
Their diagnosis may be bipolar, obsessive compulsive, schizoaffective, paranoid schizophrenic. This is not who they are – it is what they are struggling to overcome. They attend groups daily both in a day program and in their home at night. Clients are prompted to rediscover their abilities and a sense of personal pride. Staff is there to assist- with their medication taking, with seeing that everyone’s needs are being met, with ensuring that daily living skills are being taught and that appropriate social boundaries are reinforced. When staff is not there, both staff and clients are confident in their ability to be on their own.
The challenge comes in helping these individuals assimilate into the community. They might be understandably hesitant to venture out into the community without the comfort of knowing staff is there. As supportive staff we must advocate for our clients, and educate the general public. We encourage them to make positive connections in the community around them. They walk to local stores and restaurants. We provide transportation when needed to do food shopping and banking, go on socials and more. We bring them to community events at local fairs and church festivals.
I have been encouraging one man to make plans with some of his friends and to venture out into the community without staff. This week he finally summoned up the courage to do so. Three housemates walked to a local diner for breakfast. Two hours later he came home, calling my name, excitedly saying, “You’ll never believe what someone did for us! He paid for our breakfast!” His peer came and said, “Would you believe that someone did that for us?” Another explained that the cashier told them that someone who wished to remain anonymous paid for their meals. This person had asked that they not be told until he had left the diner. I wish this benevolent stranger could know the impact this simple kind gesture made. He or she could probably not have found three more appreciative recipients. In the end, all the hours of encouragement and prodding by staff, all the reinforcing of social skills and attempts at building self esteem were paled by one kind gesture of a total stranger and a sense of welcome and acceptance into the community.