>Gives mental health clients a place to socialize

   Many Americans suffering from depression and other mental illnesses find they are actually battling two problems -- their illness and the stigma society has attached to it.
   These people have the same feelings as others, and the same need to converse, laugh and interact with others. But they often live alone, afraid of rejection, and afraid of being labeled.
   This month a brave group of Madras-area mental health clients took a step to break the stigma by opening a center where clients can socialize and where the public can see they are just like anybody else. The SOS (Save Our Sanity) Drop-In Center held its grand opening Nov. 9, and is located at 35 SE C Street in Madras.
   Sandy Castro, the center's friendly, articulate receptionist, volunteers from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Using a computer, she types up a monthly newsletter and is president of the SOS group.
   "I'm not able to work and this gives me a way to give back to the community. It gives me satisfaction to help someone else," she said, explaining, "I have dissociative personality disorder, post traumatic stress disorder and panic attacks. I'm not ashamed of it and don't care who knows."
   Sandy said the center evolved from a support group started by Jefferson County Mental Health Director David White, which met at his office twice a week.
   Before that, she said, people stayed home, imprisoned indoors and within themselves. "That's the way I used to be. I didn't want to go out and do anything and that's really not a life to live," Sandy said.
   But the SOS support group changed things, and Sandy found herself looking forward to going to the meetings, seeing people and doing things.
   The idea to have their own center started a year ago. "We had heard about other drop-in centers and thought it was really a good idea. Dave suggested I talk with ABHA (Accountable Behavioral Health Alliance, an state advocacy group for mental health consumers) and our dream came true," Sandy said, noting they received a $7,535 ABHA grant to open and furnish the center.
   SOS members toured the Turning Point center in Prineville and Rainbow House in Bend, then as a group planned what they wanted at the Madras center. The result is a center that looks like a cozy family living-room, with two couches, rugs, a coffee table, TV and VCR, computer, and small table for playing checkers. Another ABHA grant for $15,000 allowed the center to purchase a van for activities, since most of the members don't drive.
   Around eight to 10 people regularly come to the center and Sandy is trying to let others know it's available. They all voted on center rules and also plan activities as a group. So far, they've held a Halloween party, gone bowling, traveled to Bend to purchase supplies for the center, and gone for outings in the van. At the center people enjoy playing board games, doing craft projects, watching videos, listening to music on the stereo, and especially talking and joking with each other.
   The newsletter recently held a creative writing contest and published everyone's entry to encourage people to become more active and interested.
   "They can write about anything. People read their stories and tell them they did a good job and it makes them feel good about themselves," Sandy said.
   She invited interested people to call the center at 325-5539 for more information. "I hope a lot of people come and check out our drop-in center. We're just like everybody else and just treat us the same," Sandy said.
   Metolius resident Wes Ferguson, who has cerebral palsy, has become a regular at the center. "I enjoy the drop-in center and come as much as I can," he said, noting he also has a yard work business.
   Bob Jackson, a counselor at Jefferson County Mental Health, is the group's support person and has an office at the center, but emphasized SOS is a self-directed program.
   "They make the decisions on how to run the program ... rather than it being something being done for them. It's sort of a self-help approach," Jackson said.
   "Mental illness carries a tremendous stigma, but most conditions are treatable," Jackson pointed out. "We now know there is a clear connection between physiology and some of the problems people have," he said.
   But if people isolate themselves and go untreated, depression and other conditions tend to get worse, he said, noting drop-in centers seem to be effective in reaching out to people and getting them to seek help.
   Last Wednesday a lively group gathered at the center for a pre-Thanksgiving party with snacks and games. Brian Wilson walks into town every day from his home on Louck's Road. He works at the senior center in the mornings, then likes to come to the SOS center in the afternoons.
   "I like the company of other people, listening to music, and the self-help videos that Bob used to bring in," Brian said.
   His friend Curtis Runkle, said they both go to the same church and have known each other for five years. Before, they would rent movies and watch them at each others houses, but now both enjoy coming to the center.
   "I came to socialize as part of my treatment for mental health. I live by myself and I'm single, except for a cat. I come here for support from my fellow companions, for the activities, and because it's free. Also, I don't have a phone and I can make calls here at the center," Curtis said.
   Mentioning the monthly newsletter, Curtis said, "I plan to write an article about eating disorders. I suffer from bulimia myself, but I have it under control now."
   Sherrie Monroe sits at the end of the couch quietly drawing on paper with colored pencils. She is trying to find a job and thinks Brian's job at the senior center sounds like fun. She also likes to draw. "I'd like to be a cartoon drawer, I'm really good at that," she said, adding she would also enjoy working with Head Start kids.
   Because of learning disabilities, Sherrie had trouble reading and writing and didn't learn to write until she was 11 years old. "People read too fast and talked too fast and it was hard for me to catch on," she said, noting she attended ERC classes at the high school until age 17.
   She had a troubled childhood and still feels shy and lonely at times, especially last week, because she didn't have anyone to spend Thanksgiving with. "I feel empty inside, like no one cares. I just care for myself. I feel sad right now about things about my past. The center is good because I don't have no one," Sherrie stated.
   She said the SOS center has made a difference for her. "It's a nice group. We share together and talk things out instead of leaving things inside that are bugging you. And the others help you on how to deal with things," Sherrie said.
   John Jackson enjoys being the editor of the SOS newsletter and thinking up ideas to get people to contribute articles. Under treatment for schizophrenia, John said the group has made a big difference for him. He has lived at Crooked River Ranch for 22 years and said before the group formed his only social interaction was once-a-month trips to see his therapist and psychologist.
   His mother took him to support group meetings last year, and now, through rides provided by Volunteer Services, he is able to come to the center three days a week. "It's great to be able to come here and relax. There's no stress here," he said, settling down to play a game of checkers with Wes.
   John likes the fact that everything they do is a group effort, and mentioned they even have two representatives (Sandy and Brian) on the five-county ABHA board.
   "I like our little band of people here. Sandy does a lot and we're all learning to do more. This group and its people are the kind of things that make me feel better. When things go wrong, we all pull together," John observed.
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