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updated: 6/21/2012 4:02 PM

Alexian Brothers fights mental illness — and stigma surrounding it

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  • Dr. Deepak Kapoor, medical director for the Partial Hospitalization Program, center, talks with Katie Connolly, PHP team leader, right, and Rick Germann, director of operations at the Alexian Brothers Center for Mental Health in Arlington Heights on Wednesday.

       Dr. Deepak Kapoor, medical director for the Partial Hospitalization Program, center, talks with Katie Connolly, PHP team leader, right, and Rick Germann, director of operations at the Alexian Brothers Center for Mental Health in Arlington Heights on Wednesday.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • Scott Burgess, executive director at the Alexian Brothers Center for Mental Health in Arlington Heights, said overcoming negative connotations surrounding mental illness is one of the primary goals of the center.

       Scott Burgess, executive director at the Alexian Brothers Center for Mental Health in Arlington Heights, said overcoming negative connotations surrounding mental illness is one of the primary goals of the center.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • Judy Jackowiak is the receptionist at the Alexian Brothers Center for Mental Health in Arlington Heights.

       Judy Jackowiak is the receptionist at the Alexian Brothers Center for Mental Health in Arlington Heights.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

 
By David Conway
dconway@dailyherald.com

After a four-day stay at Northwest Community Hospital, Patti was supposed to be released. She checked herself into the facility when she began feeling adverse side effects from her psychiatric medication -- she was "thinking really crazy thoughts," as she describes it -- and, less than a week after voluntarily removing herself from society, she was supposed to immerse herself in it once more.

There was another option, the hospital staff informed her. At the Alexian Brothers Center for Mental Health in Arlington Heights, they offered a Partial Hospitalization Program.

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While the six-hours-a-day, five-days-a-week program still meant intensive care for the patient, it would help Patti, 52, transition back into day-to-day life by allowing her to live at home when the group sessions weren't taking place.

"It was the best thing I could have ever done for myself," says Patti, a resident of Mount Prospect whose last name was withheld at her request. "When you go from a hospital situation when you're there 24/7 and being monitored, just to go back to 'real life' cold turkey wouldn't have done me any good."

While the Partial Hospitalization Program, instituted in 2009, is relatively new, the Alexian Brothers Center for Mental Health has had a lasting presence in the area, celebrating its 50th year of service in 2012.

The Partial Hospitalization Program represents the center's efforts to evolve to fit the needs of the community. During the program, which lasts from one to four weeks, a number of group sessions are offered, from "What is Stress/Anxiety?" to "Breaking Bad Habits" to "Sleep." The program acts as either a segue from hospitalization to everyday society or as a preventive measure for someone going through serious mental issues who wants to avoid hospitalization.

Indeed, the fact that the program offers many of the resources associated with hospitals, such as one-on-one meetings with therapists and psychologists, without actually being in a hospital is part of the program's appeal.

"Traditionally, historically, they've been attached to hospitals," said Katherine Connolly, team leader of the Partial Hospitalization Program, about similar batteries of treatment. "A lot of people don't like going to the hospital, being in the hospital, so having the opportunity to be free-standing could be comfortable for a lot of people."

While a considerable amount of work is dedicated to helping patients, the biggest challenge for the staff might be getting people there in the first place.

Maxine Goldstein, the center's business development liaison, is tasked with spreading the word by reaching out to doctors, therapists and other social service organizations in the community. One of the problems Goldstein mentioned, a relatively hard-to-find location tucked behind Arlington Park, was alleviated two months ago when the center moved to a larger, more prominent location at 3436 N. Kennicott Ave.

The larger issue, though, is the stigma still associated with mental health issues. It's a point that Goldstein, Connolly and Patti all emphasized, and overcoming that issue is less of a quick jump over a hurdle and more an arduous climb up a mountain. A testament to the challenge the center faces: despite her effusive praise for the program and the Alexian Center for Mental Health, Patti still requested a degree of anonymity for fear of how others might perceive this information.

"Mental illness is the last of the illnesses people don't openly talk about," Executive Director Scott Burgess said. He recounted a time when his brother summed up the negative connotation associated with mental illness more succinctly than he'd ever heard: "It's the only time you come back from the hospital and nobody brings you a casserole."

One of the best ways to help fight that stigma, the staff believes, is to help people get better so that word spreads about the usefulness of the treatment. Burgess said the Partial Hospitalization Program has an important place in a field in which the average inpatient stay at a hospital has decreased from four weeks to four days.

Sustained intensive care didn't stop being important over that period; it just stopped being a realistic option for many people. The Partial Hospitalization Program seeks to make that effective treatment a reality again.

The effectiveness is borne out by a book of testimonials left by people who have completed the one-to-four week program. The colorful pages are filled with glowing messages from departing patients, things like "Change is possible! I've changed, and so can you!" and "Being here for the past couple of weeks was probably the best idea I've ever had."

Patti echoes that sentiment. Since her enrollment in the program, she says she's seen "100 percent improvement." She's learned that, while her stressors will never disappear, she can work to manage them effectively. The issues with her medication have been straightened out, and she's gone from getting two hours of sleep a night to eight.

"I feel like my life is back," she said. "I'm me again."

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