Having searched for help and resources when her son became affected by mental illness, Kathy Stern knows from experience how challenging it can be to see a family member experience a psychotic event.
When Stern was introduced to resources offered through the San Mateo County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness some two years after her son became sick, she said she found an inclusive community and resources surrounding both individuals affected by mental illness as well as their families.
Now a board member of the nonprofit, Stern has shared the feeling of helplessness, confusion and isolation that can accompany experiences with mental illness with many other family members who have supported loved ones through and in the aftermath of psychiatric crises.
“It’s devastating if it’s a first-time psychotic event,” she said. “You feel completely lost as a family member. You look for answers and they’re not out there.”
One resource county officials and staff at the nonprofit HealthRIGHT 360 are hoping to make available to individuals facing mental illness and families trying to support them is Serenity House, a San Mateo facility to offering short-term residential stays and treatment for those who have experienced a psychiatric crisis when it opens its doors at the end of October.
Serenity House offers a stable residential environment, individualized counseling, support for family members and exposure to resources that can help clients reintegrate with their communities when their stays are over. It is expected to provide an opportunity for individuals living with mental illness and experience increasing distress place to recalibrate and reassess their conditions, explained Steve Kaplan, interim director of County Health’s Behavioral Health and Recovery Services Division.
Kaplan said in moments when someone is experiencing a psychiatric crisis, family members or caretakers are often left with few other options besides calling the police or hospitalizing them. Though police can try to de-escalate the situation, if a person’s crisis intensifies officers often need to make a choice between taking an individual to a hospital for an involuntary psychiatric hold or bringing him or her to jail if the individual becomes violent or belligerent, he said.
Kaplan said officials began exploring how they could make a crisis residential center available to county residents some five years ago as an alternative to holds in a psychiatric ward of a hospital or incarceration, which he said can add to their experience of trauma.
“From our perspective, those weren’t satisfactory in terms of the options,” he said.
Operated by HealthRIGHT 360, which is focused on providing mental health and substance abuse programs, among other medical services, the center at 3701 Hacienda St. has a capacity of 13 and will serve adults over age 18. Clients are expected to stay at the center for an average of 10 days, during which time they will be able to work individually with a case manager, participate in a variety of therapeutic groups and take arts and movement classes, said Nicole Ibarra, managing director at HealthRIGHT 360.
Whether an individual is living with severe depression, suicidal thoughts or an anxiety or personality disorder, among other conditions the center is equipped to treat, all clients develop a plan for re-entering their communities when they leave Serenity House. Ibarra said the center will introduce clients to organizations providing mental health resources in the county such as California Clubhouse, which focuses on connecting those with mental health illnesses with meaningful work and relationships, and the San Mateo County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which provides peer-to-peer connections as well as family resources as individuals transition back into their lives.
“We just really want to arm them with as many resources as possible,” she said.
Amaal Greenwood-Goodwin, founding member of the San Carlos-based California Clubhouse, looked forward to the Serenity House opening and the alternatives it will offer to those with mental illnesses. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Greenwood-Goodwin said he was hospitalized some 10 times between 2009 and 2014, and believes he would have benefited from the opportunity to stay at Serenity House. He said the resources offered at Serenity House could have helped him recover more efficiently and get back to his life, but without a center like it available when he was hospitalized, he didn’t have another choice.
“If you were anywhere near having to go to the hospital … that’s where you were going to go,” he said.
Though hospitals can provide the care some individuals experiencing crises need, they may not be the best place for them to receive treatment, especially if a hospital environment escalates one’s stress, said Kaplan, who added the program is completely voluntary. Because the Serenity House is located on the San Mateo Medical Center campus, Kaplan said referrals can be made between the Psychiatric Hospital on the medical center campus and Serenity House, if needed.
Kaplan and Ibarra pegged the program’s inclusion of the family members or friends who will live or care for individual after a stay at the Serenity House as critical to their ability to successfully re-enter their communities. By educating caretakers about a client’s condition and progress and connecting them with organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the program is expected to align clients and their families on their path toward re-entry, said Ibarra.
For Stern, the program’s focus on strengthening communication between clients and their families is essential in mitigating the impact of mental illness on one’s life. She said communication can easily break down between family members affected by mental illness, and the distance between them can also play a role in more serious problems, such as homelessness.
“You lose each other and that leads to all kinds of things,” she said, noting improved communication between family members can make all the difference in someone’s treatment. “It’s a whole new way of operating as a family unit.”
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