Place to `be with people'

Center: On Our Own in Columbia is somewhere mentally ill people can hang out with friends.

March 26, 2004|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

Like many people with mental illness, Jennifer Causey spends a lot of time alone. Sometimes she'll take the bus to the mall or get a ride to her church meeting, but Causey's personality disorder and epilepsy keep her isolated in her Ellicott City apartment much of the time.

Still, Causey always has a place to go on the weekends - for pizza, movies and the company of friends - as well as a driver to take her there.

It is called On Our Own in Columbia, a "drop-in center" where mentally ill people can go for conversation, dinner and holiday gatherings.

"It's very important to me because I never knew there was a place where people like us could go to and just hang out and go out and do stuff," said Causey, who is 36.

"On the weekends, I just want to get out and be with people."

Causey was one of the first visitors to the drop-in center when it opened in June 2000, and served for a year on its board of directors. The center open on weekends and holidays, times when mental health providers scale back activities and being alone can be particularly difficult.

"Our goal and mission is to be there when other services aren't available," said program director Pat Bohnet, 44, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 20.

"On Christmas Day last year, we had 24 people come," she said. "Many of these people would have spent the day alone for whatever reason. Maybe they're estranged from family; maybe they have no family.

"Some people say it's like their second home."

The center provides members an alternative to long stretches of idle time, said Rich Sutter of Way Station, a provider of mental health services in Columbia, who estimated that a dozen Way Station members are regulars at the center.

"Our members flourish under structure and stability, and tend to be very anxious about change," he said. "It's a vital part of bridging that Friday to Monday gap."

The center, which operates out of the county's Mental Health Authority offices in Dorsey's Search, will lose its space in May when the authority moves to a less expensive site in Long Reach. Bohnet was worried that she would not find a new place before the move. But after a three-month search, she is working out the details of a lease for a space near Dobbin Center.

Maryland's first On Our Own peer support program opened in 1983 in Baltimore, said Mike Finkle, executive director of On Our Own Maryland. The organization has 20 chapters statewide, and last year the agencies served more than 3,400 mental health consumers. Most On Our Own affiliates receive funding from the state Mental Hygiene Administration.

As an early member of the county's fledgling On Our Own group nearly 15 years ago, Bohnet attended meetings in churches and homes. The group folded and started up a few times but never established a presence in the mental health community.

When the Mental Health Authority hired Bohnet in 1999 as a consumer advocate, the local On Our Own group had not been active for five years. As part of her new position, Bohnet was charged with reviving the local group.

She organized meetings to promote interest among mental health advocates, recruited members and helped set up a board of directors.

"It's not treatment, it's peer support," said Donna Wells, the authority's executive director. "As a professional in the mental health system, it's hard for us to understand issues from a consumer perspective."

The center, which is open from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m Friday and noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, attracts about 15 people a day.

Each month, Bohnet sketches out a calendar of activities based on the preferences of the clients.

Typically, the schedule includes shopping, trips, visits to the library and the park and outings to restaurants and movies. The center's van picks up members who need transportation.

Nathan Bergstein, 57, visits the center as part of his weekend routine.

Bergstein, who has bipolar disorder, lives on his own and attends a prevocational program at Way Station twice a week.

"I just felt like it gave you a place to go, something to do, something to look forward to," he said. "It's pleasant to be able to relax with my peers."

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