Friday, August 15, 2008

Daily Gazette: Counselors offer hope, empathy to mental illness patients

By Kathy Ricketts

Ten years ago, Kathleen, a social worker at the Albany Medical Center neonatal intensive care unit, thought she could get through her depression by herself. Then she crashed.
“It was very scary,” said Kathleen, now 69, who asked that her last name not be used. “You feel like you’re in this deep, dark hole and you can’t get out.”

To get help, she went to the Ellis Hospital psychiatric unit, where she met two peer advocates, people who have recovered from a mental illness and now are helping others in crisis.

“They talked to me, and I remember that for the first time, I didn’t feel so alone,” said Kathleen. “I felt so much better knowing that these folks had been through a similar experience, and they were now helping others.”

For the past eight years, Kathleen has been working as a peer advocate herself, working 14 hours a week.

“I especially love working with patients in the emergency room and the crisis unit,” said Kathleen. “You have a chance to have an impact on them right away. Sometimes, we just sit with patients. Other times, people want to talk about their pain and trauma. I feel so privileged when people want to do that, and that I can be there for them.”
Training advocates

Lynne Davidson, 49, director of the 11-year-old Ellis Hospital peer advocacy program, trains and supervises the 12 peer advocates who have recovered from mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and drug and alcohol addictions.

The team, which ranges in age from 22 to 69, works with patients in the emergency room, and on the adult and adolescent inpatient psychiatric units. They are paid $8 an hour.

“Their job is to provide support, comfort, hope and compassion to patients while they are in the hospital,” said Davidson. “Their experience is unique. Someone who has been through a mental health crisis really has the ability to help someone else going through the same thing. It’s a powerful message of hope and comfort.”

Davidson said the three main goals of the program are:

-- To improve services to patients.

“A lot of people are very scared,” Davidson explained. “They might be hallucinating or confused. The peer advocates can meet with them and give them companionship and comfort. They have the time to spend with patients.”

-- To challenge the stigma of mental illness and educate the community.

“Mental illness is not a character flaw,” said Davidson, who has given several talks in the community about mental illness. “It’s a biological disorder. It doesn’t mean people are weak. It doesn’t mean there is something wrong with who you are. It just means you are challenged in that area. People recover all the time.”

-- To provide job opportunities for people who have been mentally ill.

“Traditionally, people with mental illness have been told they don’t need to work, or they are not capable of working,” said Davidson. “We are trying to increase the percentage of people in our community with mental illness who work, even part time.”
Providing hope

Davidson said peer advocates give people who are mentally ill hope.

“They remind people that they are not alone,” said Davidson. “It’s something people really struggle with, especially people with depression. It feels like hopelessness, but the reality is that almost everyone will recover at some point.”

Kathleen, who was so depressed she would barely lift her head, had several rounds of electroshock therapy, which eventually helped her. She also continues to take medication.

When Davidson approached her about becoming a peer advocate in 2000, at first Kathleen hesitated.

“I wondered why would she want me,” recalled Kathleen. “My self-esteem was not very good.”

However, after 40 hours of training, she began working as a peer advocate.

Peer advocates work closely with nurses in the emergency department, asking them if there are any patients who could use their services. If there is, the peer advocate knocks on the person’s door, tells them who they are and what they do, and asks the person if they would like someone to talk to.

“Sometimes, you go in and people will say ‘no,’ said Kathleen. “That’s fine. But when they start telling you their story, I listen. I try to listen more than talk.”

If the patient is admitted, peer advocates check on patients while they are hospitalized to see how they are doing.

Peer advocates usually work from 10 a.m. through 10 p.m. in five-hour shifts. Each advocate spends about a half-hour briefing the next one.

No one day is typical. Some days, peer advocates are very busy. Other days, they may only see one person.

“I learn so much from the patients,” Kathleen said. “They have so much wisdom. They teach me, and hopefully I teach them.”
Gaining confidence

Arlene, 46, was a peer advocate for two years beginning in 1997. After growing up in foster homes, she was hospitalized for depression and post traumatic stress disorder when she was a teenager.

A recent college graduate with a degree in human services, Arlene said the peer advocacy program gave her self confidence.

“I saw I had something to offer, and that I was good at it,” said Arlene. “That’s where my interest in human services came in.”

Arlene said she loved being a peer counselor.

“It gave me a sense of purpose and encouragement that I could make a difference,” she said. “It gave me back a whole lot more than I gave to the patients.”

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