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Respite Care an Important Tool in Recovery of Mentally Ill Patients
01/02/2014   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

When it comes to mental illness, many say having a peer to lean on is just as important as having a good doctor. There are a number of peer support programs across Maine, but only one has respite beds. Those beds offer an alternative to emergency rooms and crisis centers when someone is in emotional distress. Coupled with peer support, respite services can serve as the missing piece needed for recovery from mental illness. The Learning and Recovery Center in Brunswick is a good example.

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Respite Care Important to Mental Health Listen
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Forrest Blair

Forrest Blair is a mental health consumer and peer support worker at the Learning and Recovery Center in Brunswick.

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Mental illness can be a lonely prognosis. It has been for Forrest Blair. Sitting in a cozy living room at the Learning and Recovery Center, Blair painfully remembers what drove him to the Center's doorstep last summer.

"Because I isolated myself for so long," said Blair. "I was so afraid of everybody. I couldn't even look people I was dealing with squarely in the eye like I am right now. With you. I couldn't even look you right in the eye at that time."

Blair is 35, he has been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. He sees and hears things that aren't there. It started when he was 16. Since then, he's been in and out of hospitals, jobs and homes. He reached a near-breaking point last summer, and that's when he said he checked into a respite bed at the Recovery Center to figure out his next steps.

"How I was going to plan my comeback, I guess, into the outside world," Blair said. "And how I was gonna not isolate myself."

Paula GustafsonThe Learning and Recovery Center opens its doors to anyone with mental illness. Aside from respite beds, individuals can stop in during the day to participate in group activities or just to talk. The Center is run entirely by staff and volunteers who have all experienced mental health challenges. While at least one peer is always available 24/7 for support, the center fosters independence. Coordinator Paula Gustafson said individuals can only stay in a respite bed for a limited time, and they have to walk in with some clear goals.

"What you might hope to get from the center, and what the center can offer for support. Because we don't treat," said Gustafson. "We don't take care of. When someone comes in as a respite guest, they're independent in all of their own self care. Their medications, their safety, their appointments. They cook, they clean for themselves."

But being surrounded by supportive peers is therapeutic, said therapist Ed Hall.

"Ya know, it's the missing piece for most clinical processing," Hall said. "Ya know, we can talk to them, but they have an opportunity to really socialize, get out of their homes, and they do have an ability to relate to each other in a way that often, a clinician wouldn't be able to."

Hall is part of Forrest Blair's ACT team, a group of five health providers, ranging from a psychiatrist to a substance abuse counselor. ACT teams offer intense support to those with severe and persistent mental illness, but Hall said it still only adds up to about three to four hours per week. At the Learning and Recovery Center, clients can get that much support every day. And they can learn skills they don't get elsewhere, said Director Ron Welch. Things like how to cook, job skills, and socialization.

"You need more than just outpatient and medication services. Case management, even. You need to have the stuff that makes life doable."

Welch said he sees firsthand how effective the respite center is. He's convinced every community should have one. But such places are rare.

"These are the only three beds in the state," said Welch.
Patty Wight: "So there are only three beds here?"
Ron Welch: "Yeah, and we get demand for this from all over."

Even from as far away as Aroostook County. Welch said the primary reason there are so few respite centers in Maine is a lack of funding. The service isn't covered by insurance, so the Center's roughly $365,000 annual budget is covered by a state grant and funding from Sweetser. The respite beds are full 90% of the time and free of charge for those who need them, like Forrest Blair. Since last summer, therapist Ed Hall said he's seen a marked change in Blair who now volunteers at the Center three times a week.

"Ya know to watch him go through the transformation of struggling to interact with people from a moment to moment basis, and now actually see him leading speeches and forums and being a peer," Hall said.

Blair is engaged in many forms of treatment between his ACT team and medications. But he said the Learning and Recovery Center advanced his recovery by years.

"Maybe it was just accepting the fact that there are people like me out there," Blair said. "And I do fit in, ya know?"

Blair said he's realized what he needs most are positive relationships, and that's something he's found at the Learning and Recovery Center.

Photo by Patty Wight.

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