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Mentoring program provides a vital contact for mentally ill

The National Association on Mental Illness created a Peer Pals program in Santa Clara County that has become a mental illness model for the restorative power of friendship.

By Julia Prodis Sulek
MERCURY NEWS

SAN JOSE — For weeks, Melodie Sample was so depressed that she would sit on the couch in her apartment and stare at the wall. She couldn’t work. She didn’t speak. She never turned on the TV because it was too taxing to track the storylines.

Her family cared but didn’t understand. Her friends had lost patience.

At 53, she felt worthless, isolated and alone.

Then she met Patricia Cheatham, 51, a woman set up as her “Peer Pal” through the Santa Clara County chapter of NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

When they met for lunch for the first time, Sample was skeptical that they would make a good match.

Shy by nature, Sample wore her standard uniform for when she’s depressed — a T-shirt and baggy sweats. Cheatham, on the other hand, was loud and lively; she settled into her chair in tight jeans, a back-baring black halter top and huge hoop earrings.

A self-described “Miss Goody Two-Shoes,” Sample was taken aback when Cheatham asked, “how many times have YOU been arrested?”

Still, the women shared something that helped forge a deep and lasting friendship: Both struggle with mental illness and have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

“We are bipolar opposites,” Sample joked.

What they had in common, however, was much more important.

“She’s been through highs and lows. I’ve been through highs and lows. We know what depression feels like,” Sample said. “She gets me — and that’s a big thing. Sometimes that’s all that you need.”

Their relationship has become a mental illness model for the restorative power of friendship and the value of the Peer Pal program that has become a lifeline for those who have lost most social connections. The program that was created in Santa Clara County was adopted by Alameda County, which then expanded the program directly to hospital psychiatric units where patients often are admitted against their wills and feel the most overwhelmed and helpless. Alameda County already has shown amazing success: Their studies found that when psych patients are paired with mentors before they are discharged, rehospitalizations are reduced by 72 percent.

With help from Wish Book readers, the Santa Clara County chapter of NAMI hopes to raise $12,000 to expand the program directly into hospitals as well.

“Having peer support as part of the treatment team is really missing from mental health treatment,” said Kathy Forward, who became executive director of the local NAMI chapter after years of dealing with mental illness in her family, including in her son. “Who can help someone better than someone who knows what you’re going through? This is an effort to keep people engaged, to get people back into life. A lot go on to school, part-time jobs. They move back into the world. It’s a beautiful transition.”

As Cheatham puts it, “I’d rather see Melodie than psychologists or social workers.”

At a recent gathering at the NAMI office on Bascom Avenue, four pairs of Peer Pals said they so believe in the program that they were willing to speak publicly and risk the stigma often associated with mental illness.

The diagnoses of the Peer Pals vary from bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder to depression, anxiety and schizophrenia. Some are “dual-diagnosed,” meaning that along with a mental illness they became substance abusers, a common act of self-medication. Their illnesses are the kinds that can leave people hospitalized or homeless, holed up at home or behind bars.

They’ve all seen their share of psychiatrists, therapists and case workers and gone through numerous prescription medications. But sometimes, a friend can work wonders.

Forward’s son, Ryan, 36, was paired with another man who, like himself, suffers from social anxiety. Both are Giants fans, but they rarely attend games because they are intimidated by big crowds and noise. Together they worked out a plan that would keep their stress in check. After arriving early at AT&T Park, they sat way up in a corner of the stadium and faced their fears together.

Tom Jurgenson, 54, who has been hospitalized 70 times with his schizoaffective disorder, mentored a NAMI client who, like himself, found some measure of peace playing guitar. The two teamed up to get out of their homes and play at “open mic” nights. Another Peer Pal, a single mother with schizophrenia, convinced her Peer Pal suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder to join her in doing volunteer work.

The mentors all have gone through training, and they have committed to calling their pals twice a week and meeting with them once a week. They are paid $11.25 an hour to mentor during the six-month program, but many, like Sample and Cheatham, voluntarily keep up the relationship much longer.

They found each other after years of personal struggles. Sample had been diagnosed with bipolar when she was 18. While she was able to graduate from college, her depressive episodes made it was difficult to hold down jobs, much less leave her home.

Cheatham, also bipolar, turned to drugs and was in and out of jail and violent relationships for 34 years before she finally took a judge’s advice and enrolled in county mental health programs designed to help. That led her to NAMI, the Peer Pal program and ultimately Sample, who hadn’t been out of her house in weeks.

For the past three years, they’ve been meeting for coffee and lunch. Cheatham, who says she’s been drug-free for five years, now runs Eleanor’s Fashions in the Cambrian Plaza and donates clothing to women recently released from prison. She’s realizing that her life has value.

“The feeling that you’re helping a human being that is suffering from something I had,” Cheatham said, “to help them get to the other side, it’s such a good feeling.”

Peer Pals works because neither person, in the face of their illnesses, judges each other. They simply understand.

“There’s just this kinship thing. I know there’s somebody out there that truly cares about me,” Sample said. “I love her dearly. She’s a rock for me. I don’t know what I would do without her. Really.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION

To learn more about the Peer Pals program of NAMI Santa Clara County, go to www.namisantaclara.org/education.htm.

Each donation of $50 will assist the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s Peer Pals program, which matches mentors and mentees in an effort to help people progress in their recovery from mental illnesses. NAMI hopes to raise $12,000 to expand the program directly into hospitals as well.

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