By: Peter Lineberry
It’s been said that not every disability is visible, and this can often be true when it comes to mental health. Some illnesses are readily diagnosed and treated with therapy and medication; others can be vaguer in the minds of those affected and often remain unknown to a person’s loved ones. Anxiety and depression can take many forms, and while sometimes triggered by sad events, might start just because, well, life happens.
One reason that symptoms are undiagnosed, or purposefully hidden from the wider world, is the fear of stigma: that the person will become a social outcast at work or at home. Yet, in our county, there are numerous organizations dedicated to fighting this perception and providing needed help. Prince William Living wanted to highlight some of these organizations and show the good they are doing in the community, and share a few self-realized therapies that have made a positive difference for some coping with mental illness.
Because, as Cynthia Dudley of Woodbridge’s Trillium Drop-In Center notes, “One in four people in the U.S. are diagnosed with a mental illness over the course of their lifetime, but four out of four have to take care of their mental health.”
This year marks the 50th anniversary for Community Services (CS) in Prince William County. It’s the public government agency that provides many avenues of assistance for residents of Prince William, Manassas and Manassas Park, including case management, treatment, psychosocial and employment services for individuals diagnosed with a mental health, substance abuse or developmental disability. Other services include early intervention programs as well as 24-hour emergency services and crisis intervention. Virginia is divided into 40 regional Community Services Board/Behavioral Health Authority districts, some serving multiple counties; Prince William’s is the oldest, and second-largest, behind only Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board.
To provide context of how CS has grown to meet the county’s needs, in 1968 it served 300 clients with a budget of $16,000, whereas there were 9,500 clients in fiscal year 2016, and last year’s budget, funded through federal and state grants, exceeded $41 million.
“My belief is that regardless of age, race, or social status, every citizen of Prince William County should receive the best quality service he or she can get from us,” said Carol Thacker, CS program manager for adult mental health services and a licensed clinical social worker. She and her staff oversee case management for nearly 1,000 clients while providing active case management services, individual and group therapy, medication management and hospital discharge planning. When needed, the agency’s emergency services personnel work collaboratively with individuals receiving services at CS as well as families and other agencies to offer aid, including to people who are homeless.
Thacker believes that mental health issues can arise from a person’s struggles to cope with an increasingly complex world along with a genetic predisposition for mental illness. “As our world becomes more chaotic and we have more tragedies, it’s hard to fight stigma,” she said. “The best thing that we do to fight it is to provide education in the community. In tandem with the activities of our Community Services Board of Directors, our staff provides education, when invited, to help people understand that individuals diagnosed with a serious mental illness aren’t necessarily dangerous.”
Community Services, which can be seen as a clearinghouse of mental health and associated resources, has offices in Woodbridge and Manassas. For more information: pwcgov.org/government/dept/cs/pages/default.aspx.
NAMI Prince William
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is a grassroots, nonprofit association with more than 1,100 local affiliates, and since its incorporation in 2007, the Prince William chapter has been active in our county. NAMI-PW’s mission to “support, educate and advocate for people with mental illness and their families” is characterized by its focus on educational programs and support groups.
Did you know that one percent of American adults live with schizophrenia? That more than six percent live with major depression? That 18 percent live with anxiety disorders? These NAMI-sourced statistics, along with many others, are a major reason why its classes and services are in demand.
Pat Victorson is a member of NAMI-PW’s board of directors and a past secretary/treasurer. A former preschool teacher in Lake Ridge, she now teaches “Family-to-Family” and “NAMI Basics” courses and in 2018 looks forward to leading workshops on “Children’s Challenging Behaviors.” In addition to courses for family members, NAMI “Peer to Peer” program is open to persons experiencing mental health challenges and encourages growth, healing and recovery.
“Our educational programs, which range in length from six to 12 sessions, go into great depth,” Victorson said. “They include emotional reactions to the trauma of mental illness, understanding specific disorders, brain basics, treatment, problem solving skills, empathy, communication skills, selfcare, and principles of rehabilitation and recovery. All of our courses are free of charge and offer substantive resources and information, as well as hope, compassion, and the knowledge that we are not alone.”
Four NAMI family support groups meet once a month in Woodbridge, Manassas and Gainesville. During the meetings, all of which are led by trained facilitators and follow a NAMI-approved structure, everyone gets to share his or her concerns confidentially and in a safe setting. “The whole idea is that you use group wisdom…to solve problems and come up with options,” Victorson said. NAMI-PW hopes in the future to offer a similar support group for people living with mental health conditions.
Victorson is also optimistic about NAMI-PW’s participation, along with district court judges, attorneys, police, detention center staff, social workers and many others, in the county’s DIVERT docket program. Following a nationwide trend, people who are arrested and are suspected of having a mental health condition can be placed on a separate (as opposed to criminal) docket to be screened for immediate medical or other help. “If that person needs treatment right away, it’s far better to get them into treatment than have them sit in a jail cell,” she said. For more information, visit nami-pw.org.
Trillium Drop-In Center
In an unobtrusive back corner of a Woodbridge office park, Trillium Drop-In Center provides a safe and comfortable haven for adults living with mental illness to, well, drop in and unwind. Recently celebrating its 10th anniversary, Trillium combines leisure activities with support groups and informal classes.
“One of the things we know about mental illness is that people often isolate and stay home, so what we’re trying to do is get people in on a casual level and get them feeling connected,” said Executive Director Cynthia Dudley. “What we’ve learned…is that people can learn to manage their symptoms and lead full and productive lives.”
At Trillium, guests can relax in the Tranquility room, play board games or cards in the conference room, shoot pool in the recreation room, and make snacks in the kitchenette. TVs, computers and a variety of arts and crafts supplies are also available. Once or twice a day, groups will meet to discuss topics like “Social Skills” or “Change is Possible.” About 40 people visit each day, some coming daily and staying for hours, others maybe weekly just to eat or socialize. All of Trillium’s activities are informed by its code of conduct, which reinforces kindness and respect.
And everyone who works there, including Dudley, and a majority of its board of directors, is a mental health customer as well. Dudley was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression as a result of incidents in her youth and young adulthood. In her 30s, she attempted suicide numerous times; now in her 50s, she’s helped thousands of others. In a video on the nonprofit center’s website, Dudley shares her story with a procession of flash cards that concludes “life is worth living…and I had to learn the hard way.”
During our interview at Trillium, she nodded toward four men socializing in the recreation room: “They have built a very strong bond, and they can talk to each other when something is going on…It’s really kind of beautiful.”
“I just want people to understand that mental illness is treatable, and there is always hope,” she added; in fact, HOPE is on her license plate.
Trillium, open 10:00 a. m. – 10:00 p. m. Monday through Saturday, is located at 13184 Centerpointe Way, Woodbridge. For more information, visit trilliumdropincenter.org.
Action in Community Through Service, or ACTS, performs innumerable functions throughout Prince William, and we have highlighted the Dumfries-based nonprofit in our magazine many times. One of ACTS’ most critical services, in operation since 1981, is its 24-hour Helpline: 703-368-4141.
Phones are manned by ACTS staff and volunteers, all of whom are rigorously trained in-house and certified by the American Association of Suicidology. In addition to the above number, ACTS receives routed local calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (NSPL), which is 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Last year the Helpline answered an estimated 40,000 calls.
“Sometimes it’s easier to talk to somebody you don’t know,” said Vicki Graham, a 30-year veteran of ACTS and its current chief program officer for trauma and crisis services. “You can disclose confidential stuff, or maybe you don’t want to tell certain things to somebody you’re close to.”
(Younger readers may know rap artist Logic—a native of Gaithersburg, Maryland.—and his hit song, also called “1-800-273-8255,” which relates the story of a teen fighting back against suicidal thoughts. Released last April, the song’s video has amassed more than 170 million online views, and NSPL officials say it immediately resulted in a substantial increase to its incoming calls.)
ACTS also maintains Senior Link, which provides scheduled “reassurance” phone calls between 8:00 a. m. and 8:00 p. m. to senior citizens and physically disabled persons who spend much of their time alone. The sign-up service, according to Graham, was initiated because the elderly population, especially among men, has the highest suicide rates.
Although all calls are handled anonymously and confidentially, ACTS permitted the sharing of an incident from last summer when a girl who had been bullied at school began hurting herself in response. “Luckily she ended up calling our hotline,” said ACTS director of suicide services William Harms, and once calmed was urged to reach out to her neighbor, who called an ambulance. “Not to get too dramatic, but one of the first responders picked up the phone and said, ‘Thank you, we’re here now, everything is safe.’”
“That’s really what intervention is about,” added Graham. “How can we ally with someone who’s suicidal, so they can find the strength to make the decision to live?” For more information, visit actspwc.org.
Two Therapies That Work
When Kathy McKenna’s sister gave her a couple of coloring books two years ago, neither of them knew the impact of what was to follow. McKenna is a recovering alcoholic living at Gainesville Health & Rehab Center, who was then facing memory problems and failing organs. But as she took up coloring with colored pencils and markers, her buoyant personality began to shine through. “I just found such a peaceful feeling, like nothing I had ever felt before,” she said. She’s since molded herself into a de facto art therapist, greeting residents and inviting them to color with her in the activity room; many take her up on it, and their works are exhibited along the corridors at the Gainesville facility. McKenna has even named her collective the Color Squad. “It’s a group of people supporting a group of people, who care about one another,” she said. “They know they can call on me to brighten somebody’s day or listen if that person’s having a problem. Educational psychology is what I do,” she added with a laugh.
Though you wouldn’t know it to see him now, Chris Glowacki admits to an unhappy childhood due to being severely depressed and overweight. But when he discovered yoga in his mid-20s, everything changed. Now a certified instructor, he leads hour-long sessions of Yoga on the Lawn at Rippon Lodge in Woodbridge most Saturday mornings in the spring and summer. The mental, as well as physical, benefits of yoga are well documented, and he also shares them at county recreation and senior centers. “I feel that I can reach people and help if they have depression or any other issues. They can get into [yoga], and it can alter their lives; maybe [they’ll] become teachers like me,” Glowacki said. “I’m here to help people, and that is my mission.”
Last October, Prince William County celebrated its 12th annual Mental Health Awareness Event, with the theme of “Stronger Together,” at the Ferlazzo Building in Woodbridge. About 300 attendees had the opportunity to meet and mingle with representatives of all the aforementioned organizations, as well as many others that catered to all age groups. At one end of the concourse, Glowacki was demonstrating yoga poses, while at the other, McKenna and others were displaying their artwork. In between the networking and a catered dinner, attendees filed into the auditorium where Community Services executive director Alan Wooten spoke of the “continuous opportunity to learn from the changes that we’ve made and the advances we’ve achieved,” adding that “Mental health treatment works…and there’s so many things that we can do preventatively to really make all of us healthier.”
While there are numerous time-tested coping strategies that one can employ for mild bouts of anxiety or depression—deep breathing; keeping a journal; modifications in diet, exercise and sleep patterns—the common mantra among Prince William’s experts is: You are not alone, and if needed, you should not fear seeking assistance for yourself or for loved ones. In the words of Carol Thacker: “Everyone should feel comfortable to ask for help, whether it’s through us, or they call the ACTS hotline, or they go to Trillium. It matters not the source; it’s ask, and there’s plenty of resources out there.”