Women at walk-in center work to decrease stigma of illness most of us don't get

November 04, 2001|By GREGORY KANE

BEA GADDY, the 2nd District city councilwoman who died several weeks ago, received many praises and glowing testimonials. Not mentioned among her qualities was this: She got things most of us not only didn't get, but still haven't gotten yet.

Just ask Andrea Gibson, who met Gaddy in Mondawmin Mall awhile back. Gibson introduced herself as one of the women who runs A Place of Our Own, a Baltimore County walk-in center for those who suffer from mental illness.

Gibson said that Gaddy expressed enthusiasm for what the center was doing and gave her a number where she or her staff could be reached if Gibson or Rae Balsamo, the other co-director of A Place of Our Own, needed any help.

Gaddy's response, Gibson and Balsamo said, was not typical of those who find out that both women suffer from mental illness. In Gibson's case, panic attacks kept her from leaving the house. Balsamo had a drug problem that caused her to be "manic," a state that led her to do "outrageous, uncontrollable things," she said.

Both have experienced the stigma that comes with being diagnosed with a mental illness.

"When people find out I have [it], I'm nothing," Gibson said. "If we tell people we're in therapy, it's, `Oh, there's something wrong with you.' "

The "something wrong" these women object to is not the mental illness itself, but the assumption that they're automatically dangerous and that we "normal" folks should steer clear of them. Look at the Joseph C. Palczynski case as an example, they said.

"The media emphasized the fact that he was mentally ill," Balsamo recalled. "It's as if his being mentally ill was more important than what else was happening in the story."

Palczynski - whose family members said he suffered from bipolar disorder - killed four people in early March 2000 and then eluded police for nearly a month before taking a Dundalk couple and their son hostage. He died in a hail of bullets after police stormed the house.

Gibson's 21-year-old daughter, Ericka Gibson, had a firsthand experience with the fallout that Palczynski's actions caused to those who also suffer from mental illness.

"I went to one job and mentioned I had a disability," Ericka Gibson remembered. "They asked what it was. I said, trying to pick the one that would alarm them the least, `Bipolar.' They told me `Oh, you're just like Joseph Palczynski.' I didn't appreciate that at all."

Those of us who consider ourselves "normal" might not understand why the young woman took offense. Try viewing it from this perspective: If all the suicide bombers who committed terrorist acts on Sept. 11 were proved to be mentally "OK," that is, free of psychiatric illness, would the rest of us "normal" folks be stigmatized as potentially homicidal?

"We have a problem, but we have other qualities," Andrea Gibson said. She and Balsamo don't want people to automatically think of Palczynski when the words "mental illness" are mentioned. There are other things to think about.

What, for example, do Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Isaac Newton, Vincent van Gogh, Leo Tolstoy and Charles Dickens have in common?

Yes, all these people probably suffered from some form of mental illness. Two extraordinary political leaders, an artist, two authors and the man who invented calculus. Not very bad company.

"All these people have contributed," Balsamo said. She, mother and daughter Gibson and others who come to the walk-in center try to make their contribution as well. Those afflicted with mental disorders drop in and learn how to be self-sufficient. Cooking lessons, for example, are provided.

Andrea Gibson and Balsamo provide guest speakers for those who drop in. They may take drop-ins on picnics or cookouts. They hand out literature on mental illnesses. All this on a paltry budget of $45,000 a year.

They try to raise extra funds when they can. They need more money to expand the center as the number of clients continues to grow. (Ninety-eight people walked through the doors seeking assistance in 2000.) They also want to start a thrift store staffed by clients.

A Place of Our Own is run by the mentally ill for the mentally ill. Bipolar disorders - severe mood swings - and depression are the most common afflictions. Others come in suffering from schizophrenia, anxiety disorders or post-traumatic stress disorders.

They know that the struggle to change the image of the mentally ill will be a long one. Andrea Gibson and Balsamo remembered going to a bank that has the account for that tiny $45,000 budget and hearing one of the workers use the "c" word in reference to them.

That "c" word is crazy, every bit as offensive to the mentally ill, Gibson and Balsamo say, as the "n" word is to blacks. Both women sent a letter of protest to bank executives, but have received no reply. Being ignored hasn't diverted them from their path.

"We're going to try to make a step forward," Balsamo declared, "and get that stigma to decrease."

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