People hospitalized for a mental illness have a long road ahead of them, with plenty of pitfalls to sidestep as they try to re-integrate themselves back into society. But they don't have to go it alone.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Santa Clara County is kicking off a program this year called Peers on Discharge, which pairs up a person hospitalized for a mental illness such as clinical depression, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder with someone with the same disorder who has been discharged and is farther along on the path to recovery.
It's not exactly a new concept. Dawn Brown, NAMI's development manager, explained that the program works much like peer support groups for physical health and traumatic injuries. "It just makes sense to have someone who has been on the journey advocating, cheering, and helping navigate hurdles and roadblocks," she said.
Cindy McCalmont, a NAMI program supervisor, said the months-long peer program will have mentors meet with patients in the hospital three times a week -- once in person and twice by phone -- to support them through the recovery and reintegration process.
The patients continue to have one-on-one support meetings well after being discharged from the hospital; in some cases, these sessions may be even more important than the meetings in the hospital.
"There can be so many different issues that someone coming out of the hospital could be dealing with," McCalmont said. "It could be housing or employment issues; they may be trying to apply for disability. That peer, having been through those things, can break down a monumental task into manageable steps."
McCalmont has experience with the tough process of re-entering society. She said she was hospitalized for five weeks in a psychiatric unit, and that it felt as if she had a giant neon sign above her head that said she was now "suspect" because of her mental diagnosis. She said people like herself coming out of the hospital have to deal with recovery on top of a slew of self-esteem and self-critique issues amid misconceptions surrounding mental health.
"It's just enormous. And to have somebody there who says, 'I do know what it's like,' and to have that person be this beacon of hope," she said. "You don't have words for what that companionship at that time is like."
The yearlong program is funded through a $100,000 grant by the El Camino Healthcare District, and began July 1, according to Barbara Avery, community benefit director with El Camino Hospital. The funding will pay for part-time program coordinators, part-time peer mentors, and informational programs.
Avery said the target is to help 60 hospital patients at Stanford, El Camino Hospital and Kaiser. She said it will be the first program of its kind in the county, and that the hospital will be looking at re-admission rates and patient surveys to see how well the program is working.
"Part of the evaluation is interviews with participants and checking for any changes in isolation and how they feel in their recovery," Avery said.
Several health care district board members, including David Reeder, have been pushing for a better "continuum of care" for patients to provide better services and oversight for patients before and after they are admitted into the hospital. Avery said this is one more way the hospital can provide for mental health patients following their discharge.
"We have a pretty good continuum of programs for mental health issues, but we really are always looking for something else," she said.
The program has a good track record so far in other parts of the Bay Area, according to Kathy Forward, executive director of NAMI of Santa Clara County. Forward said NAMI of Alameda County South ran an 18-month study of a program similar to Peers on Discharge, and was able to reduce re-hospitalization by 72 percent.
"They thought they would get 40 percent if they got lucky," Forward said.
Much like existing support groups for injuries and other illnesses, Forward said, there's a lot to learn from a mentor on how to manage symptoms, medication and treatment on a day-to-day basis, especially since most medications take the edge off symptoms rather than eliminate them.
"When you think of any other catastrophic illness in (a patient's) lifetime, there (are) systems set up for support groups and educating families," she said. "With mental illness it's not that way, but I think it's changing,"
Forward said peer mentorship is a key part of the mental health recovery process and should be at "every level of treatment," including the emergency room. She said the sooner patients and their families can start to understand the illnesses and that there is a chance for recovery, the sooner they will be able to get back on their feet.
"So many people go in and out of these systems so many times because of the stigma," Forward said. "People can manage these illnesses and lead productive lives."