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Peer Support, sense of community vital components of mental health

June 2020

Michael Kilcoyne, of Worcester, now 63, found help and purpose through Genesis Club and Open Sky.


By Joan Mikula/ Guest Columnist

Posted Jun 6, 2020 at 4:49 PM

Peer support plays a vital role in recovery and those who feel successful in handling their mental health struggles often train for a variety of roles that help others with similar experiences.

Columns share an author’s personal perspective and are often based on facts in the newspaper’s reporting.

(May is Mental Health Awareness Month. The following article chronicles the struggles and successes of individuals receiving services through the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health and its community partners. Prior to the emergence of COVID 19, more than 29,000 Massachusetts residents struggled with their mental health and the pandemic has illustrated that mental wellness can be an issue for most people.)

Every Monday through Friday, Robert Fournier arrives at his Springfield “office” at 8:30 a.m. and works until 3:30 p.m., helping with whatever needs to be done to keep things running smoothly. And while this isn’t a traditional job, it is every bit as important to Fournier and to those he meets at Lighthouse Clubhouse.

Fournier, now 49, has spent much of his life responding to childhood trauma in one way or another. He used alcohol and drugs to self-medicate. He also had serious health problems requiring transplants. He eventually overdosed and said he had no choice but to think while he was hospitalized.

Like many other people, Fournier’s mental health diagnosis was complicated by substance use, but depression and stress disorder (PTSD) are the primary conditions that make his role at Lighthouse Clubhouse so important.

Lighthouse Clubhouse is a program of outpatient support that helps individuals living with the effects of mental illness. Clubhouse staff and peers aid each with a variety of life skills such as finding work, permanent housing, furthering their education, and feeling comfortable in social situations. But perhaps most importantly, it provides its members friendly faces and a sense of community offered by people who have traveled a similar path that led them to hope. Robert said he hopes to go back to school for computer training with support from the clubhouse.

“Lighthouse gives me a purpose and it lets me be around people,” Fournier said. Since COVID 19, he participates in Zoom groups and receives therapy by phone. Although that helps, it’s not the same as participating in person, he said.

Adults with chronic mental health conditions have an average life expectancy of just 53 years. For those with co-occurring substance use disorders, life expectancy is reduced by another 10 years. It is critical that steps are taken to interrupt this trajectory. Helping individuals to flourish in less restrictive and more independent living and work environments is critical to their long-term success.

Community services for adults in Massachusetts supported by the Department of Mental Health include case management, Adult Community Clinical Services (ACCS), Programs of Assertive Community Treatment (PACT), respite, Recovery Learning Communities (RLC), clubhouses, peer counseling and homeless outreach services, or adult foster care, which allows people who aren’t able to live on their own to live in a home environment.

He was an aspiring writer and journalism major at Northeastern University when a pattern of drinking too much and “making bad decisions” began to emerge. He tried to “tough it out,” and hide that he felt paralyzed. Problems with medication eventually landed him in a locked ward. “I was out of control. I’m so lucky I didn’t do any damage .... It was a really serious, scary time. At one point, they told me I had dementia.”

Eventually, Michael was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and started to put his life back together with the help of therapy and organizations like Genesis Club and Open Sky. Genesis Club gave him a purpose and helped him with create a routine with employment-related activities, and Open Sky helped him with his medications, gave him rides and checked on his wellbeing after he left the hospital.

“No one expects things like this to happen. When I was at Northeastern, I thought I’d work a few years at a paper and then write the great American novel,” he said.

Michael is now feeling well and is able to give back by acting as a peer counselor for others who are struggling. He also serves on the board of directors for Open Sky.

Peer support plays a vital role in recovery and those who feel successful in handling their mental health struggles often train for a variety of roles that help others with similar experiences.

Now also a peer counselor, Anna Lawler, of Fitchburg, had spent most of her life responding to physical and emotional abuse. As the oldest of seven sisters, she felt responsible for keeping her sisters safe. She left home as a teenager and soon married a man who was also abusive and had five children of her own, working three jobs and wondering what was wrong with her.

“I kept wondering why I felt lost and depressed and never had enough time for my kids. I kind of fell down the rabbit hole and started drinking and feeling suicidal,” Anna said. Eventually she ran, leaving her children behind. Locked in a pattern of overwork and depression, Anna had a “full blown breakdown” and landed in St. Vincent’s Hospital where she learned people can talk about what hurts.

“To hear you could talk about the stuff you went through - that was a huge eye-opener for people like me who learned to just suck it up. There was all this abuse you just never realized people went through.”

Anna credits the Kiva Center, which offers peer-led supports for those who have experienced trauma, with saving her life, “putting the reigns back in her own hands... and providing a living room where people can come and talk.” She now works for Riverside ACCS and is able to support others as a facilitator and certified peer specialist.

“I can really relate to people who have gone through trauma and loss, and the more I can help other people, the more it helps me,” Anna said. “A lot of people walk out of the hospital and think, ‘Now I’m cured,’ but it doesn’t work that way. Very few people can do it on their own.

“There are things I wish I had done better. I wish I had done better with my kids,” she said. “But they’ve come around. They’re my biggest supporters. We’re not the Brady Bunch but that’s OK.”

Joan Mikula has been commissioner of the Department of Mental Health since 2015. She previously served as deputy and assistant commissioner of the department’s Child, Youth, and Family Division. DMH provides services to more than 29,000 people across the commonwealth and supports dozens of community-based programs in Massachusetts.

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