Mental Patients Help Their Own

From the Oregonian, July 14, 1989

When Jerry Wang walked out of the mental ward, he felt like a hatchling shoved out of the nest.

He was baffled about how to lead his life following his nervous breakdown. He passed his days in front of a television set. He craved companionship.

Affected by a bipolar disorder, Wang wandered through the mental health system for 20 years. The mental illness — characterized by mood swings of elation and depression — is passed on genetically.

Eventually, he pinpointed his problem: No service existed to help him manage both his illness and his life outside the wards.

Wang, trying to find a solution, designed Mind Empowered Inc., a program to help former mental patients cope with their illnesses in society. The program is part of a national trend in mental health called the consumer movement, which urges patients to take more responsibility for their treatment.

On Friday, Mind Empowered will join with Access Oregon, an agency that provides services to help disabled people live independently, in an open house. The two organizations both are located on Southeast 26th Avenue and Belmont Street.

The open house will run from 4 to 7 p.m. and among the guests will be Rick Bauman, Multnomah County commissioner, and Kevin Concannon, director of the state Department of Human Resources.

According to Joe Rogers, former president of the National Mental Health Consumers Association in Philadelphia, the movement grew from a demand for more outpatient services and peer support outside of mental institutions.

During the last five years, Rogers said, about 500 programs have been established in the United States.

Wang’s program, which he said was the first service program in Oregon operated by the mentally ill, has received a three-year grant of $393,000 from the National Institute of Mental Health.

Now in its second month of operation, the program has 15 volunteers, but only six clients. Under the terms of the grant, Mind Empowered Inc., must boost its client count to about 60 by the end of the year.

Jim McSwigan, the outreach leader, has been informing hospitals and other agencies that serve the mentally ill about the program. He said he expect future clients to be drawn in by word of mouth.

The program is open from 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. every day except Sunday.

Volunteers provide services such as managing money and helping clients find housing. Volunteers also hope to visit clients and help with tasks such as cooking.

The office provides space where clients can socialize with their peers.

Volunteers say that the background they share with clients has been an asset.

“We can identify with them on that gut basis. We’ve lost friends too, and we’ve felt that same stigma,” said Michael Hlebechuk, a board member who said he had spent 15 years in mental hospitals.

Members maintain that the illness of many volunteers won’t impede the program’s progress.

“Generally we’re episodic,” Hlebechuk said. “Some people are in left field only one month out of the year. The rest of the time they can help.”

But the program has encountered one administrative setback due to mental illness. Wang, once executive director, recently became a volunteer. He said he had a nervous breakdown in May from job stress and was hospitalized for two weeks.

“I’m manic-bipolar,” Wang said. “I have a lot of thoughts and designs, but I can’t implement and manage them well.”

Garrett Smith, formerly a co-president on the board of directors, has taken over as executive director.