Rising Up

There’s a startlingly small degree of separation between the general population and mental illness. One out of every three people is personally affected — either they or someone close to them are mentally ill — said Denee Jordan, clinical director of Phoenix of Santa Barbara, a nonprofit mental health agency.

Dedicated to both treatment of the mentally ill and education of the general public, the Phoenix team is “putting a lot of mythology of mental illness to rest just by being here in a neighborhood,” said executive director John Turner.

The neighborhoods are 107 East Micheltorena St., home to Phoenix House, a transitional residential treatment facility; and 1231 Garden St., headquarters for Ada’s Place, a less structured transitional care facility. Also under consideration is an additional property at 37 Mountain Drive.

“In some cases the clients are indistinguishable from other people. With services and medication some of the mentally ill can live lives that are normal,” Turner said.

The agency, which celebrated its 30th anniversary last year, serves clients with a variety of conditions, predominantly schizophrenia. Two years ago it added a dual-diagnosis program for mental illness and drug addiction. Usually the two illnesses are treated separately, but according to Turner, these clients need specialized treatment.

“There’s no definitive line between mental illness and substance abuse but you can’t clearly see the difference in the two behaviors” said Jordan.

The staff has been trained to understand the complex relationship between sobriety and mental health. The Phoenix program is based on an adaptation of 12-step principles used by Alcoholics Anonymous. The county is also starting a dual-diagnosis certification program that will eventually be open to the public, said Jordan.

It’s not that the mentally ill are more susceptible to addiction, “but I think that the outcome can be worse. They’re already struggling with organizing their thoughts, without introducing substances,” she said.

“Someone with mental illness symptoms may use street drugs to cope with the symptoms,” said Turner. While there are now fewer side effects associated with antipsychotic drugs, they’re still very uncomfortable, said Jordan. Getting the mentally ill to stay on their medication is a huge challenge. “It has a lot of adverse side effects. The general population thinks they just don’t want to stay on it because they’re not behaving themselves,” a misconception, according to Jordan.

Emphasizing the importance of medication compliance, Turner said one of the keys to success is for staff to check in daily with clients in the outpatient program who may be ambivalent about taking their prescriptions. “Really good rapport is key for a good relationship between staff and client.”

While Turner admits that “introducing the concept of recovery into mental health is fairly novel,” his team is committed helping clients live as normally as possible. Among the guiding values of Phoenix are being creative and seeing “fun, humor and artistic expression as central to a full life.”

In addition to her clinical work, Jordan is also a professional ballet dancer with the Plexis Dance Theatre, which performed a piece on schizophrenia last year.

“I’m a great believer in how we can really shift people from maladaptive to functional,” said Turner, who has a masters in social anthropology. “I’m interested in the mix of community and mental health. It’s exciting to see people discover recovery.”

Originally published in South Coast Beacon on July 10, 2003.