Special Reports

Mental illness: Groups in Whatcom County work to expand early intervention, peer and social support

Russ Sapienza knows what it’s like to be depressed and alone.

He was working part-time in New Jersey and caring for his father when he was tested by a psychologist because he was thinking of entering the priesthood. His diagnosis came back two-fold: Anxiety and severe depression.

“I was becoming more isolated, being anxious around people,” Sapienza says.

He saw a therapist for several years and joined a mental health support group. Later, while visiting a relative in Whatcom County, he was smitten by the region’s beauty and moved to Bellingham 18 years ago.

“My only regret is not moving out here sooner,” he says.

Sapienza, 50, saw a therapist in Bellingham for about three years, and continues to take medication. He now works as a mental health peer counselor and is active in a church and other community groups.

He has also been active in the Whatcom chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, known as NAMI, since 1998. He’s now a board member, and co-facilitates Connections, a peer support group offered by NAMI.

Sapienza speaks to civic groups about mental health, and works to improve community support, such as housing and jobs, for people with mental health issues, along with access to counseling, medicine and peer support.

“What mentally ill people really need is for someone to say ‘We care about you and we know what you’re going through,’” he says, “and that’s the purpose of NAMI.”

Widespread impact

Anne Deacon, human services manager at the Whatcom County Health Department, says one-in-four people will experience a mental illness in their lifetime.

But, the good news is that treatment for mental illness works,” she says. “When provided with timely and effective interventions, symptoms can be managed.”

NAMI is one of several active groups in the community helping people with mental health issues and their families.

Christine Morrow, board president of the local chapter, says NAMI Whatcom has been active since it was founded in 1984. A “NAMI on Campus” was recently chartered at Western Washington University, and more local programs are possible, including a class in Spanish if a volunteer instructor can be found.

NAMI’s services are free, with membership available on a sliding scale.

“One of our key goals is to break down the stigma of mental illness,” Morrow says. “Often people are losing hope when they find us. We give them the tools and education to understand the impact of mental illness.”

Alternative to jail

Deacon, at the County Health Department, says not treating people who have brain disorders results in excessive medical costs, poor work experience, broken families and sometimes incarceration for those who can’t stay stable without treatment and, often, medication.

“Twelve to 15 percent of local jail inmates suffer from serious mental illness,” she says. “When mental illness is left untreated, the likelihood of continued criminal behavior remains.”

Arrests and incarceration only prolong the disease, eroding hope for the individual and increasing frustration for family members. To break the cycle, a new Mental Health Court now operates out of Whatcom County District Court and Bellingham Municipal Court. The court has a special docket designed to reduce mental illness and repeat crimes through intense, judicially supervised treatment.

Services provided through the court include mental health treatment and medications, substance abuse treatment, behavior change programs, specialized probation services, and recovery support services, such as transportation and housing assistance.

“Some felons have been dropped down to lower charges to get into the program,” Deacon says. “It’s truly a team approach. It does take a village for stable recovery and crime prevention.”

Early intervention for children

As a mental health counselor, Doug Benjamin recently joined the Bellingham School Board out of an interest in helping kids get ahead. He sees early intervention with children’s mental health as far more effective and cheaper than treatment later.

“It must be a preventative program,” Benjamin says. “I am so impressed with the Bellingham Public Schools policy of ‘The Bellingham Promise,’ a set of policies designed to create positive outcomes for current students and graduates. I’ve looked at a lot of other school districts, and none of them have quite the rich, strategic plan that we do.”

In large part, the goal is to foster graduates who are not only knowledgeable, but also responsible and ethical, with the ability to take positive action for themselves and others. With an earlier focus on each child, mental health problems can be more readily identified.

“Children with problems become adults with problems,” Benjamin says. “Serious mental illness does not go away.”

Along with an early focus on children’s mental and physical health, Benjamin says, Bellingham schools are emphasizing early childhood education, including full-time kindergarten and pre-kindergarten for select children, and more staff counselors for elementary schools.

Another effort to reach children early is GRADS, a program for teenage mothers and fathers. GRADS offers child care while the teen parents finish their education and learn parenting skills.

“The best parents are educated parents,” Benjamin says. “It’s so less effective to intervene later. Start early.”