Changing the Perception of Mental Illness


m I crazy?"is usually the first question people ask while disclosing the details of a mental issue, says Cheryl Coleman, president and CEO of the Northeast Guidance Center (NEGC) for community mental health services on Detroit' s east side. But this underlying fear is common.

"The reality is, one in every five people suffer from a mental illness,"she explains. Out of fear, though, many people suffer in silence.

Coleman has nearly 40 years of service in social care. At the helm of the NEGC for 22 years, she quietly leads a mission to change the public and patient' s perception of mental illness. She hopes that one day soon, conversations about mental ailments will be considered "normal.”

"Hey, Theresa,"Coleman says casually, walking into the NEGC' s cafeteria. Coleman has come to see what' s for lunch. It' s "chef' s choice."Theresa-a cook in the cafeteria and a progressing patient in treatment at NEGC-is more excited to share the news of her upcoming 74th birthday.


"Well you don' t look it,"Coleman says, with a laugh.

As she continues her daily walk through the center' s community rooms and halls, she greets several friendly patients. Others say nothing and stare blankly. These are some of the more severely ill patients. They may never recognize her and at times may see her as a threat, but it does not make Coleman want to help them less.

"I love helping people,"she says. "And I feel blessed that I am able to help people in that way."Community mental health centers, such as the NEGC, have replaced the old asylums with socialization programs. The center has about 20 programs, including intensive home-based services, prevention programs, school-based counseling and psychosocial rehabilitation care.

On the grounds, there is a 39-unit subsidized complex, the Mack-Ashland apartments, where homeless severely ill patients can be close to treatment and live independently-which is also part of recovery, says Coleman.

Mental illness, she explains, covers a broad spectrum, from mild forms of obsessive-compulsive disorder to severe schizophrenia. These are diseases just as cancer and heart disease, but are more undiscriminating in the population of people they affect.

"You don' t blame yourself when you get cancer, so why would you blame yourself for having a mental illness?"Coleman says. "It' s any color. It' s almost like the luck of the draw.”

Socioeconomic status also interferes with mental health care treatment because of the cost of care and medicine.

"At (NEGC), we serve people who are chronically mentally ill,"Coleman explains. "So many of them cannot work anyway. They would definitely be homeless and on the streets. And they would be a hardship for the city, because people really need the treatment services in order to function.”

Started in 1963 with funding for children by the Detroit Wayne County Community Mental Health Agency, the NEGC' s four locations serve about 3,500 chronically mentally ill people in metro Detroit.

"For our children, we call it severe emotional disturbances,"says Coleman. "They may just be needing some anger management, grief counseling or some group counseling.”

Coleman, a graduate of Wayne State University with a master' s degree in social work, began her work in human services as a child care worker in the ' 70s; a time, she remembers, when mental illness treatment meant isolation from society. "Huge facilities where they used to just park people away, almost for the rest of their lives. You wouldn' t want (people) in there.”

While she does' t know anyone personally who suffers from mental illness, she empathizes with those scared to reach out. "They think they will be shunned. But they won' t get the help if they let the stigma get them down.”

People suffering from severe mental illness tend to die about 25 years earlier than people who don' t if left untreated. When people call NEGC to discuss a possible issue, they are screened by a professional. Then they receive a psychiatric assessment and individual plan of treatment.

"With that care-and I call it care, because we do care for our people-they really can function just like everyone else. They can be productive citizens. It really is helping people live their best quality of life,"she says.

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