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Mental Wellness Center Takes the Long View of Mental Health Challenges

Even as it battles awareness, stigma, misunderstanding and current events, agency proud of progress and strength of programs

[Noozhawk’s note: This article is one in a series sponsored by the Hutton Parker Foundation.]

Mental illness has been central to the news in 2014, linked to mass murders in Isla Vista and Goleta as well as the circumstances surrounding the death of actor-comedian Robin Williams. The pathway to recovery is a long journey, and early intervention is the key to creating wellness and a healthy lifestyle that, in turn, can help prevent future tragedies.

The nonprofit Mental Wellness Center has been serving the Santa Barbara community since 1947, with the goals of providing recovery, education and family services to meet the needs of adults and families who are affected by mental illness.

This challenging issue affects the whole community, not just families. Parents, siblings, friends and co-workers all experience the trauma of mental illness, too.

“When people think about mental illness they often conjure up an image in their head of someone who is perhaps homeless, not receiving services, someone who’s pretty ill,” said Annemarie Cameron, CEO of Mental Wellness Center. “And the truth is that mental illness is more profound in our community.”

According to Cameron, one in four families on the South Coast is affected by mental illness, with 55,000 people living in the area needing help with their mental health or treatment for mental illness.

Mental health stigmas often can lead to delays in receiving care or contribute to long-term effects for those facing mental health issues, individuals who often feel misunderstood and misjudged.

“Everyone knows that lack of money and resources are a major barrier in getting mental health services, but another issue that faces all of us is stigma in mental health,” Cameron explained. “Stigma can be overt or subtle, and often take the form of discrimination.”

The Recovery and Learning Center at the Fellowship Club was founded in 1959 to provide education, residential and support services, and advocacy. The fully peer-staffed program served 301 clients in 2013-2014, a 9-percent increase over the previous year.

The Mental Wellness Center, 617 Garden St., has been serving the Santa Barbara community since 1947. (Melissa Walker / Noozhawk photo)
The Mental Wellness Center, 617 Garden St., has been serving the Santa Barbara community since 1947.(Melissa Walker / Noozhawk photo)

Through the personal experiences of others, program participants are able to relate to and learn skills and tools for managing their own mental wellness. Family support services for the right resources and programs are key in the journey to recovery, and the RLC offers a safe place for support and knowledge in both English and Spanish, providing education, companionship, recreation and self-help activities.

“Every day about 80 people join us at the Fellowship Club where they take part in support groups, computer classes and vocational clubs, where they are looking for work and all kinds of opportunities that help them with their individual goals towards achieving a better life,” Cameron said.

Community support for the Mental Wellness Center is vital since government funding for mental health services has been severely reduced in recent years. The effect has left many community members in limbo.

Every week, Cameron said, the Mental Wellness Center receives calls from the parents of 20 year olds with the quandary that their child is not ill enough to be “in the system” and not well enough to be progressing in life as an adult.

An informed community helps to establish a keen base of caregivers, students and citizens, who believe that treatment and hope are essential for everyone’s mental wellness.

The student education program, Mental Health Matters, teaches sixth-graders the facts about mental health problems and an understanding that depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anorexia, bulimia, attention deficit and anxiety disorders are not only treatable but can happen to anyone. MHM helps students to fight the stigma that surrounds mental health disorders, and the program achieved a 56-percent increase in 2013-2014, serving 750 students.

Mental Health First Aid is an interactive 12-hour course that teaches participants about the risks and warning signs of mental health problems. In 2013-2014, 165 people were served, and a Spanish Mental Health First Aid course will be offered in 2014-2015. Email the Mental Wellness Center to register for the next course, scheduled for Nov. 8, or call 805.884.8440. Pre-registration is required.

Together with the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Southern Santa Barbara County, the Mental Wellness Center provides training and education for families with self-care and advocacy. This partnership grew 4 percent in 2013-2014 and now serves 52 people while offeringfree services that include NAMI’s monthly educational meetings and Family-to-Family bilingual course.

Another joint venture is the Healthier Living chronic disease self-management program, in partnership with Sansum Clinic, CenCal Health and the Partners in Care Foundation. This award-winning six-part program was developed by Stanford University for individuals or families to better manage health, lower anxiety, and offer suggestions for better communication with doctors, friends and family.

And the Family Advocate Program at the Mental Wellness Center provides family members with one-on-one support and weekly support groups in English and Spanish. Calls to the program increased following the Isla Vista tragedy in late May, with a 20-percent increase in 2013-2014 leading to the serving of 409 people.

Safe housing options for individuals living with mental health needs also are provided by the Mental Wellness Center, which served 73 people in 2013-2014 and had a waiting list of more than 200 people for units at the Garden Street Apartments, Eleanor Apartments and Casa Juana Maria. Additional forms of housing support include the Housing Assistance Loan Program that provides security deposit assistance for rental housing.

The Mental Wellness Center also assists clients in finding competitive employment services with support at local and private employers. The jobs program provides the business community with a talented labor pool, and referrals from outside agencies dramatically increased by 144 percent in 2013-2014. The program now serves  44 clients.

According to Cameron, all of these programs and the increased awareness of mental health issues lead to a fundamental question for the public to evaluate and consider in order to stem unwarranted discrimination and allow people to live full lives.

“One of the things that we do at the Mental Wellness Center is that we say to people, would you really discriminate against someone who had diabetes or heart disease or any other chronic illnesses?” she said. “No, and so it’s time that we start to understand that mental illness is a biological, chronic disease that needs treatment and support.”

Click here for more information about the Mental Wellness Center, or call 805.884.8440. Click here to make an online donation.

Noozhawk contributing writer Melissa Walker can be reached at [email protected]. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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