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Connecting with others; Mentally ill discover whole world awaits; Program helps many battle fears, experience life

By Encarnacion Pyle

Jeff Simpson didn't let the black lights, folksy furniture or the funky murals of Victorian's Midnight Cafe distract him.

He leaned back into a monster sofa, pushed glasses up the rim of his nose and cleared his voice before reading his poem.

Long and lonely path I've been traveling.

These days just waiting for the landscape to change.

It didn't matter that these were his innermost thoughts.

It didn't matter that his closest friends were watching.

It didn't matter that public places made him anxious, and he had spent years locked at home battling those fears.

Simpson's life has changed a lot in the past year and a half, with the help of a project that linked him and 24 other severely mentally ill people with counseling, housing, jobs and the wider world of family, friends and fun.

Simpson and the other participants were happier and healthier after the program, with far fewer hospitalizations than before the one-on-one assistance, an Ohio State University study found. What's more, the program saved taxpayers as much as $180,000 for emergency- medical problems, the researchers said.

"If it wasn't for Concord Counseling (Services), I probably wouldn't leave my apartment," said Simpson, 36, of Reynoldsburg, who has battled anxiety and depression for years. "I remember going to a bookstore with the program recently, and it was one of those days I wish would never end."

In 2000, five social-service groups joined together to challenge people with mental illness to want more than a safe, stable life.

"So often, people with mental illness are told to take their medication and not do anything to rock the boat once they're stabilized," said Laura Moskow Sigal, executive director of the Mental Health Association of Franklin County, which oversaw the one-year project with the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Franklin County chapter.

"We thought why not challenge them into taking some risks by doing volunteer work, finding a job, making friends, moving into their first apartment or throwing a party."

By expanding their social networks and leaving their homes, people with mental illness are more likely to be able to cope with daily challenges, Moskow Sigal said.

The groups visited an award-winning, one-stop mental-health center in Long Beach, Calif., where treatment teams of job coaches, nurses, psychiatrists and social workers help more than 270 people with mental illness.

Armed with two federal grants -- nearly $290,000 in total -- the local groups developed their own program, which officially ended in March. But the effort continues, funded with Medicaid money. It now serves nearly 100 people.

For the original program, Concord Counseling provided treatment to the 25 participants and nudged them to discover their communities through group events. The clients went to concerts, dinners and museums. They enrolled in classes, joined gyms and took walks.

"We helped people who were homeless or used to failing in school, relationships and with their family expand their lives," said Mimi Sommer, Concord's executive director. "And they wowed us."

COVA, a Clintonville vocational center, helped clients gain the skills necessary for jobs. Caseworkers offered free computer training, steered people to high-school equivalency classes and explained how working would affect their Social Security and other benefits.

"We believe getting a job or doing volunteer work -- anything to get out of the house -- is part of the cure," said John Finch, COVA's vice president of rehabilitation and employment.

The Community Housing Network found affordable homes for everyone, including nine people who had been living on the land or in shelters. The group gave clients furniture and dishes, sheets and towels to get them started. They helped clients throw housewarming parties and assisted them with landlord and maintenance problems.

"It's easier to take control of your life once you have a roof over your head," said Susan E. Weaver, the network's executive director.

The efforts appear to have paid off: participants spent fewer days in the hospital, had less emergency mental-health crises and nearly no run-ins with the law compared with 25 other people who had access to the same agencies without the handholding.

For instance, program participants were hospitalized for 18 days, compared with 216 days for the control group. And the control group had 47 more visits to Netcare, Franklin County's emergency mental-health center.

Program administrators say the program saved taxpayers between $102,000 and $180,000 in health-care costs.

"Life has been experienced in all of its glory, and at times, in all of its pain," said Jen Malone, a Concord caseworker who helped the clients expand their social experiences. "The subjects have persevered and stand before us as new beings. They are ready to claim their lives as their own and to no longer heed to our voices that so often caution them."

For Linda Lees, 54, of the North Side, the rewards are simple.

"Before the project, I was sick in the hospital, fighting depression," Lees said. "Being blind and depressed, I felt isolated and so very different. Now, I'm trying new things and living life to the fullest."

Copyright 2005, Used with permission from The Columbus Dispatch.

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