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SEIU Local 535 Dragon--Voice of  the Union-- American Federation of Nurses & Social Services Unioin  

The Consumer Self-Help Center

July 2003

Nathan, a large man with a gentle voice, laughs as he jokes with his friends, as they sit around on a couch in the backyard lounge area of the Vallejo Consumer Self-Help Center. He brags about his new job as a janitor, his friendships at the center, and how well his life is going. It wasn’t always like that.

Nathan“I used to hear voices. They would tell me to hurt people,” Nathan states with some agitation. The voices were very disturbing to him, and he saddens as he talks about them. He still feels badly about one incident when he acted on the voices. He feels badly about ending up in jail and the pain he caused to the person he beat up. He was involved in drugs, was homeless, and tried to commit suicide. But that is four years in the past. Now when he starts feeling shaky he visits Vallejo Crisis Center, an easy walk from the self-help center and his independent living residence. The people at Valley Crisis help him with his medication and act as a resource to keep him on track. “My life was a real mess back then, but it’s not that way now,” he makes clear.

JamieJamie, sitting on the couch across from Nathan, also knows what it is like to be tormented by voices. “I’d hear voices telling me that they were going to kill my family, or that I was the son of the devil and was here to eradicate the earth and send everyone to hell.” He went to the crisis center for help. “They showed me a lot of kindness and respect. I was able to talk about my problems and get my life cleaned up,” he states. He now understands that he suffers from schizophrenia and the voices were just manifestations of the illness. Through mental health services he has learned to control his illness. He no longer hears voices, and he feels good and confident about himself. “I’ve never felt better. I live with my parents, but I’m working to become more self- sufficient,” he says.

Vallejo has a very large concentration of board and care, room and care, and independent living situations, and many of the residents of these facilities rely on Vallejo Crisis. “Some clients live in crisis,” explains mental health clinician Nina Smith. “They don’t engage in out-patient clinics. They aren’t good at following up on appointments. Some suffer from agoraphobia (fear of being in crowds or public places).” The main time they see a medical professional is during a crisis. For this reason Lee Foster, the program director of the Consumer Self-Help Center, is very concerned about the possible closing of Vallejo Crisis.

The self-help center is a consumer-run community, with social activities and hot meals. People in the mental health community meet and go on field trips, to movies, to the beach, and even on camping trips. The center helps consumers by providing small jobs and group activities that build confidence and improve social skills. “Couples even meet and get married,” Foster states.

Foster explains the philosophy of the self-help center: “Many people come here from institutions where they have been told what to do. Here they can come and go as they please, and they learn from others. We find them little jobs to do, first to keep busy and then so that they can make a living. We tell them they can control their mental illness, but just don’t expect it to happen overnight.”

The self-help center trains the consumers in peer group counseling, which goes along with the consumer-run philosophy. The center does not provide therapy or have licensed therapists, Foster explains. The consumers learn to listen and be supportive of each other through peer counseling, and they are able to resolve a lot of problems and keep people on track. But if someone has a more severe problem, or is in a serious crisis, they are taken to the crisis center, eight blocks away. This happens about twice a week.

If the Vallejo Crisis Center closes, mental health consumers in crisis would have to be taken to the Fairfield center, which is at least 20 minutes by car if traffic is clear. The idea of getting caught in a traffic jam with someone in the car who is already having a mental breakdown causes Foster a certain amount of trepidation. “Fairfield is a long way away, and anything can happen. A short trip is no danger, but driving someone who is already in crisis all the way to Fairfield — I don’t know,” he states, contemplating what that car ride could be like.