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Program helps manage mental distress

By Erika Pedroza | Published Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Bad decisions may have been the “best thing that ever happened” to Jan Scott of Decatur and Barb Clingan of Roanoke.

Brain injuries sustained in a car accident in 1996 and other traumatic experiences that were never addressed left Scott struggling with hallucinations, depression and fluctuating emotions for years. She reached her tipping point two years ago, when she attempted – and fortunately, failed – to ram her car through a local doctor’s office.

The incident did send her to the emergency room at Wise Regional Health System in Decatur and put her on a path to get the help she didn’t know how to ask for.

Following the loss of her husband to cancer in 2011, Clingan attempted to take her own life with an overdose. After a neighbor found her, Clingan was transported to Wise Regional Health System and later got to the help she “was ready for.”

Thanks to the behavioral health program at Wise Regional, the two have begun their climb up from rock bottom.

“Life is not hopeless,” Scott said. “You have a choice – you can either live it or choose to check out. But it goes on whether you’re in it or not. And I’ve learned I want to be in it. I am worth it.”

COLLABORATING HELP – Haroon Siddique leads a staff meeting of the behavioral health department at Wise Regional Health System in Decatur. The psychiatrist is the medical director of a staff that includes a program director, social workers, clinical therapists, social workers, psychiatric nurses and counselors. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

REACHING THAT POINT

Under the direction of psychiatrist Dr. Haroon Siddique and program director Melanie Whittle, the behavioral health unit at Wise Regional offers a comprehensive continuum of care – from inpatient services for those who have checked into the 20-bed facility to intensive outpatient therapy sessions and check-ups and tune-ups as needed thereafter.

The staff also includes clinical therapists, psychiatric nurses, social workers and counselors. Although both Clingan and Scott entered the program through inpatient services, patients can enter at any phase, depending on their needs. Treatment plans are individualized to meet each patient’s need.

“Treatment of mental illness is two-fold – therapy and medication,” Siddique said. “One of the two never works; typically it’s the combination that works. That’s what we offer in our outpatient program. Same with the inpatient therapy. It’s not easy, it’s difficult. But it’s the way to get better when they get intense therapy along with the medication.”

When the program at Wise Regional was started, it was offered only for the geriatric population before expanding to all adults.

“Basically we are geared to dealing with the losses in our lives,” Siddique said. “It could be the loss of a loved one, and it could be the loss of status – I’m 75 years old, and I can’t drive anymore after doing it for myself for so long. It’s not easy. When they come and talk with other people who have been through all of this, they feel better and they grow to understand it’s a transition and that they have to get used to this with the new changes they have to look forward to.”

This is achieved largely through individual and group psychotherapy – keys to the program’s objective to teach patients how to enjoy a fulfilling and productive life.

“We want to help them learn how to cope better – whether we do it through talking, through writing, through stuff on the board – however the message can get to them, whatever’s most effective for each person,” said clinical therapist Jennifer Jarosz. “We can incorporate therapy into different sorts of things. We try to make it creative.”

In addition to notes and handouts – whose readover may reverse a rough day’s start, Clingan and Scott said – group therapy may include games of BINGO that feature positive thoughts written in place of the numbers, and describing scenarios with only positive words.

“It’s not just sad,” Jarosz said. “We laugh a lot in here. Even myself, I always leave feeling better than when I come in because there’s a lot of positive encouragement and support for one another.”

But the bulk of the healing process, the three ladies agreed, is talking.

“I’ve never done so much talking in my life,” Clingan said. “And even as much as I didn’t want to at first, because I was embarrassed and I didn’t want people to know what I did, it was the best thing that ever happened to me.

“Now it doesn’t embarrass me now to tell people what I tried,” she continued. “If it’s going to keep them from doing it, then I’ll tell them. Group brought me out to where I felt I wanted to help anybody in there and just anybody that needs the help.”

Scott agreed, adding that therapy redefined her purpose in a similar way.

“Group helps you realize you have a purpose,” she said. “You have to have a purpose. I used to say (my purpose was to) be a good paralegal. Now, it’s to be a good witness, encourage somebody else.”

Opportunities to help others were available within the group. Although the two said they were never forced to go into why they were there, when people did, it helped everyone realize they were on the same page, alleviating feelings of hopelessness.

“A lot of the times when you’re going through that, you think you’re the only person in the world who’s ever been through that, and there can’t be anybody else in the world who’s ever felt like that,” Jarosz said. “You withdraw even more. That’s one of the most therapeutic things about therapy is that you come to a room full of people who have all been through similar things. So there’s that immediate connection. You realize you’re not alone.”

That connection helps create a strong bond, maintained through lunch dates and phone calls even after participants “graduate” from the program.

“It becomes like a family,” Clingan said. “I mean, you shared some intense things. But now when we go to lunch, we kid about it. When they told me I was graduating, I was sad. I didn’t want to go. I wanted to stay with them.”

However, the graduates are invited to return as needed, or as they desire.

“We always have an open-door policy,” Jarosz said. “If you ever get to the point where you feel like you need to come back, we’re here for you. It’s not like you graduate from our program and you never come back. It’s always available to them.”

Jarosz said many former group members do return.

“They have different things come up in their lives, or they just need a little tune-up. We’re here for them.”

Like they have been for Scott, who has returned to therapy to help her through the holiday season.

“I’ve lost a lot of people around this time of the year – my dad, my mom, my grandmother, a niece,” she said. “I’m not embarrassed. I need the help; group helps you realize that. And what better place to be for help than here. I really enjoy coming.”

FROM THAT POINT ON

Since participating in the program, the two have picked up the pieces and moved on, just as counseled.

“One of the things I learned is being good at starting over,” Scott said. “Resilience is what you learn.”

She has since sold her house, dodging foreclosure, and has moved in with her daughter and son-in-law, Amanda and Jonathan Fuller.

“I was afraid I was going to lose my independence,” Scott said. “But it was a good change. Finances were better. I paid the couple back that I owed the money to (for helping her out of home foreclosure). I got a new car. Change is good. I’ve learned that, too.”

And for first time since the car wreck, she’s landed and maintained a job for more than a few months.

“I was kind of in denial that I couldn’t do paralegal work again,” she said. “After I started therapy, that’s when the little lightbulb came on – hey, you really do have some disabilities, and this is the way it is. This is just the way it is, so you better figure it out and make some good choices.”

For two years, she’s worked at a hotel.

“I learned that through this program. We have a great program right here in Decatur,” Scott said. “It helped me learn that life is hard, and sometimes, bad things happen to good people. But it’s not worth it to sweat the small stuff, because everything can change in 30 seconds.

“The things I used to think were important, aren’t important anymore – your house, that doesn’t define who you are,” she continued. “I’ve tried to simplify my life. I love it. Every morning, I see my grandson. I walk in there to his crib, and he smiles his wall-to-wall smile. I enjoy that first cup of coffee in the morning.”

Practically speaking, perhaps the greatest lesson learned is self-awareness.

“One of the best things we’ve seen is that they’ve both become more self-aware as they’ve gone through this process,” Jarosz said. “They’re able to get a handle on things before they get really bad. They’ve really succeeded in being able to prioritize and take control of their life.”

“They train your brain,” Scott interjected. “And they do it over and over again. When you’re about to graduate, they go over the signs to look for if you’re about to relapse. I think that’s good because it gives you something to fall back on.”

Through therapy, the two have learned strategies to help them manage tension to avoid the onset of an episode – a water fountain, glass of wine and a good book for Clingan; reading inspirational quotes and a book of compliments for Scott.

“I’m trying all these methods to where I take time for myself, even if it’s just relaxing, putting my feet up and reading the newspaper or a book or something. I make time for that,” Clingan said.

Among the changes she’s made in her life, Barb has started dating.

“I felt guilty,” she said. “What would Harry think? My stepdaughter told me, ‘Barb, it’s OK. Dad’s gone. He would want you to go on with your life.’

“That was a turning point,” she continued. “I want to go on with life; I have a lot of life to live,” Clingan said. “Two years ago, I wouldn’t have said that. I have really learned from this experience. It’s set me on the straight and narrow. It’s an experience that I went through that I will never go through again. My husband always said, ‘Never say never.’ In this situation, I mean it – in capital letters. Never again.”

More information on the Behavioral Health Department at Wise Regional is available at www.wiseregional.com/hospital-services/behavioral-health/.

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