Often times in cities, when you walk downtown you will come across people who seem just a bit off. They dress in old, dirty clothes, they walk a little too close behind you and they say the weirdest things.
Often we stigmatize them as strange, awkward and uncomfortable. We assume those people have some mental illness that is permanently handicapping them from being anything close to “normal.”
It’s not uncommon to steer away from these types of people and just assume they are dangerous and unpredictable.
Maybe it’s ignorance that protects us. Maybe we don’t want to get know people who are different from us because we would have nothing to gain from it.
Before I started working at a mental health program, I was one of those people who crossed the street just a little too soon when I saw someone who seemed “off.” But within a day of volunteering at a mental health organization, my walls of stereotypes and notions fell down as I got to experience what people affected by mental illness are really like.
Countless mental health facilities target helping those in need. In Erie, the Mental Health Association (MHA) building located on Peach Street provides such opportunities. It is a place for people affected with mental illness to go, learn how to better themselves in dealing with their illness, feel accepted and form lasting friendships. The association’s goal is to promote and support mental health recovery.
The vision is “all people with mental health needs lead meaningful and satisfying lives through choice, responsibility and dignity with respect.”
Bill Grove, the CEO of MHA, described the atmosphere as consumer-driven and consumer-run.
“We make sure everyone who comes here is empowered,” Grove said. “We are very committed to recovery so people can live their lives to the fullest. Although there are different programs, we all work to that common goal.”
Like most things people can’t understand, people often form stereotypes about the members. Rita Wheeler, the volunteer/program coordinator, and Grove said they are aware of the stigmas attached to mental illness. They said people outside of the mental health community often believe the members are stupid, completely disabled and violent.
“People don’t recognize the talents and passions people with mental illness have,” Wheeler said. “They don’t realize they are capable of feeling.”
The first thing that Grove and Wheeler want outsiders to know about MHA is that it is all about the consumers. It is also recovery-oriented. This is reflected in MHA’s mission, which is to provide “a consumer-driven environment which supports and promotes recovery for people with mental health needs.”
With all that MHA does, are the members appreciative of their services?
“Yes,” Wheeler said with certainty. “We had an outreach at Hamot [Medical Center] in 1999 back when they had a mental health program. We came in and talked about our services and what we offer and extended an invitation for anyone to stop by and check it out. Some of the people still come today.”
Wheeler described a time when a long-time member had finally reached his Social Security settlement, and having the extra money, he chose to make a donation to MHA.
“He said that we have done so much for him that he wanted to give back,” Wheeler said.
Grove added that there isn’t a day that goes by where people don’t say thank you.
He said that people who are asked to leave for various reasons often want to return, and that is a testament to their affinity for the program.
MHA’s membership is a number that is constantly in flux. Once someone becomes a member, he or she is always considered to be one. About 80-100 people come in each day and about 750-800 come in annually. In November, the staff hosted a Thanksgiving dinner that served more than 900 people.
It’s important to the staff to keep MHA a safe environment. The consumers are their No. 1 priority and if the consumers threaten that, they must leave. They are given several chances, unless they are violent. If the act is mild, they are asked to leave for a day. On the more drastic end, MHA recently had a consumer push a staff member, which resulted in a year-long suspension.
Mental health is not a very common field for job employment, which could be due to the struggles that come with it, according to Grove and Wheeler. Admitting that he was “ambivalent” about choosing this job, Grove, a former clinician, said that he can now say that this was one of the best decisions he ever made. Wheeler took this position 16 years ago to be able to better communicate with a close family member who has a mental illness. Both confess to struggles with their jobs.
“It’s really hard when you have hope for them when they don’t have it,” Wheeler said. “It’s also hard when they don’t have a place to live because that impacts their physical, mental and emotional health.”
However, there are many things that Wheeler and Grove said they find very rewarding.
“Seeing people change, being open to new experiences and trying something even if they are afraid takes a lot of courage,” Wheeler said.
Grove finds seeing consumers becoming employed and taking the opportunities to recover to be the rewarding part of his job.
Gannon University has a connection with MHA, as several of its students there have interned in the past. Student interns have ranged from psychology, social work, and anthropology majors.
The responsibilities of the interns include filing and faxing paperwork to implementing ideas for groups that might be beneficial to members. One former intern worked on starting a meditation and relaxation group.
When you drive by MHA you will see its symbol, the iris. This flower has been adopted since the mid 1980s as a symbol for a number of mental illness/mental health organizations. Standing below the sign are typically numerous members taking a smoke break or just socializing around the building’s perimeter. One of these people is Gary Thomas, who said he spends a lot of time there.
“I come here because the atmosphere is very friendly, warm and uplifting to the soul,” Thomas said. “I like to come and hang out. I’ve made a lot of friends here.”
David Blacki, another member of MHA, was eager to comment on his experiences there.
“I come here to relax. I enjoy shooting pool, playing ping pong and watching movies,” Blacki said. “When I’m here I participate in the groups and activities, the whole nine yards.”
While Blacki and Thomas did not state the reason for them attending was specifically the connections made with other people dealing with the same thing, Wheeler strongly believes that is one of the things members get out of attending.
“The feeling of connection with another human being, I know they come for a lot of reasons but they all come back to the connection,” Wheeler said.
The basic guidelines for MHA membership require members to be over 18 years old. They must produce a photo ID and proof of a history of treatment for mental health needs.
These members can enjoy the Consumer Center along with the many things that MHA has to offer. The Consumer Center is a safe environment that provides two activity rooms, a self-help library, laundry and shower facilities, computer center and a classroom. Members dictate what activities and trips go on the monthly calendar, which averages about 50 organized events per month.
Another part of MHA that makes it as successful as it is, is the Peer Support Team. The Peer Support Team assists adult mental health consumers on their recovery journey. Team members offer peer counseling and help in developing community supports. What makes this team effective is that they have shared experiences with the people they are supporting. This is a necessary part of recovery for both the peer receiving the support and the peer giving the support. This tactic allows for both peers to learn from each other and to be better able to connect through shared experiences.
Recovery is the main goal of MHA, and it has six foundational principles of recovery that it abides by: hope, support, self-advocacy, spirituality, education and personal responsibility.
A unique feature of this organization is the Warming Center. It is available between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. when the temperature outside is 25 degrees or colder. During that time, an individual can eat a light meal, do laundry or take a shower.
Perhaps the feature that best epitomizes MHA’s mission is a display on the second floor. One of the walls is full of handmade posters made by MHA members. The colorful posters all bear the comments of members who wanted to show their appreciation. These modest, honest tokens of appreciation show that to an outsider, MHA may be just a building, but to its members, it can be life-changing.