Dave Moller

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August 29, 2005
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Spirit House becoming a model for mental health

Grass Valley's Spirit House, a place of solace and hope for the mentally ill, is quickly gaining recognition that could translate into long-term funding.

Started under the tutelage of county employee Lily Marie 19 months ago, the center where mental health patients help each other is thriving and has become a model for some other communities.

A meeting of the nonprofit California Network of Mental Health Clients at the Spirit House last year ended with high praise for Nevada County's program.

"Many left with the idea that it was a model they would like to duplicate in their areas," said Carole Ford, the network's self-help director. "It's an absolute model beyond just a drop-in center. It's actually providing wellness and recovery for mental health patients."

Marie started the peer empowerment program several years through the county's behavioral health department. The concept was similar to drug-abuse recovery: Let the people who lived through the hardship show the new patients a way out.

"The clientele run the place," Marie said of the sprawling home that overlooks the Brunswick Basin. The property was made available at a nominal rent from one of Marie's relatives.

"You need to provide an environment that's healthy instead of a sterile, office-like one," Marie said. "The beauty and the serenity are as much a part of the process as the counseling.

"We want people to feel like this is their home from the minute they walk in the door. It's great to see them making decisions for themselves; that's what empowerment is all about."

Marie said a number of peer counselors handle about 20 to 25 patients per week who drop in for the straight talk and camaraderie.

Some might just be having a bad week. Others are in a situational crisis like a lost job and come for counseling and guidance.

Most are patients and counselors keeping a handle on their illnesses and lives. Those in full crisis are found help quickly and do not stay at the center long if they're in a volatile state.

"The center is all about not getting to the crisis state," Marie said.

Peer counselors simply allow patients to get to know themselves, Marie said.

"People become their illness instead of who they are because they get stigmatized and labeled instead of (being seen as) someone with talents and abilities," Marie said. "We support them in the process and help them with their decisions and the consequences of their decisions."

The center and the counselors also do outreach to civic groups, schools and businesses to break down walls and stigma about mental health.

That's because "most people would rather they're relatives be incarcerated than be mentally ill," Marie said. "Just because you have mental illness does not mean you can't manage it and function."

The center has the attention of Bob Erickson, the county's director for behavioral health.

"It's doing very well," Erickson said. "The whole peer concept is just a great idea."

"It's a powerful place," said Joan Buffington, who is currently coordinating the county's push to get money from the new Mental Health Services Act that taxed the income of millionaires. "It's a model for the sate and the nation, and that's how it's supposed to be."

According to Buffington, a former county mental health case worker, "what we've got going here is way more than what others have. What happens here is not just therapy, it is helping people function in the world."

Activities for counselors and others include learning how to do resumes, writing grants, planning fund-raisers and the questionnaire for the Prop. 63 goals that area residents answered.

"They're writing a proposal now asking for Mental Health Services Act money to help keep Spirit House open," Buffington said. "I have never seen such a group of people take charge of themselves and rise above their crises to help others."

The center is open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday with other groups scheduled before and after. The goal is to have it open 24 hours, seven days a week, Marie said.


To contact senior staff writer Dave Moller, e-mail davem@theunion.com or call 477-4237.

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The Union Updated Sep 22, 2005 11:19PM Published Aug 29, 2005 12:00AM Copyright 2005 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.