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Published on October 05, 2015

Changing the face of mental health on Cape CodChanging the face of mental health on Cape Cod

Mary Munsell describes herself as being “dead” seven years ago.

She had just been released after 2 ½ years in a state mental hospital in western Pennsylvania, had dodged long-term commitment, and was moving home with her parents.

“They had no idea what they were bringing home,” she said during a workshop Friday (9/2) at the annual Behavioral Health Summit in Hyannis. “What they didn’t understand is that I was dead inside. … No longer a mother, a wife, I no longer worked. I gave up.”

But on Friday, dressed in a glittery jacket, Munsell described the new life she found in Dance in the Rain: Whole Person Approach, the Hyannis organization she started to offer peer support and reduce the isolation and stigma of mental illness. She was one of six people on a panel about how peer counseling and family support is changing treatment.

“These are the first-line workers,” said Patricia Durgan, the panel’s moderator and director of Cape Cod Healthcare’s “partial hospital,” or mental health outpatient program. Durgin is an advocate for family support and peer-to-peer counseling. Volunteers from Dance in the Rain, for example, meet with clients in the partial hospital program.

“These are the people who live with these folks, who gave birth to these folks, or lived the experience themselves, so they know what it feels like now and how it’s experienced in a family setting,” she said. “They are really the great heroes.”

Patients, families and service providers want to close the gap between treatment and the rest of the world by eliminating stigma and sharing resources, Durgin said.

“What we really want to do is talk about the bridges that have been built and where we’re heading,” she said.

The annual summit is sponsored by the Behavioral Provider Coalition of Cape Cod and the Islands, which represents more than 30 organizations, agencies and care providers. Participants reflect ongoing changes in mental health treatment and intervention and include police, program providers, support and peer counseling organizations, families and those with mental illness – “peers.”

“We really have to listen to the people who really struggle with these illnesses,” Durgin said in an interview before the summit. “And as a person who works in mental health, I’ve learned more from patients and family over the years – and I feel like they speak the truth.”

During the panel, Munsell and Marc Deane, a volunteer with Dance in the Rain, described their own battles and Dance in the Rain’s peer-run arts, social, and drop-in services.

“The most dangerous thing for me after partial hospitalization was isolation,” Deane said. “It took me two months to call Mary and ask her if I could volunteer in some capacity.

“It has totally changed my life. … We are passionate about this because we are saving our lives.”

Daniel Shay, a parent advocate with the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, talked about the 18-year “journey” with his daughter, who he said “crashed” during her junior year in college. He found help through a NAMI parent education group. “I can remember going to that first session. I just cried.”

Deb Rausch, program director for the local NAMI chapter, described the family as “the first line of support” and explained the parent support and education offered by the organization. Lisa Murphy from Parents Supporting Parents also talked about the strength of a family support network, in her case for those dealing with addiction.

And Don Lonergan, program director for the Southeast Recovery Learning Community, talked about how his bipolar diagnosis led him into social work and peer counseling. The state Department of Mental Health funds peer and support programs run by his group in the southeast section of the state, such as “bridging” – helping hospitalized patients make the transition back to real life.

But they all had the same message as voiced by Munsell: “What we have to create is no longer a mental health system but a mental health community where everyone is sharing ideas.”

Each person’s illness is different, she said. In her case, an empathetic practitioner was able to crack the “ice that was covering the small flame” in her.

“The doctor who was caring for me dropped that patient-doctor relationship and he started to talk to me as a person,” she said. “We began to talk about common things. I was a woman with mental illness but I was also a spiritual woman. He acknowledged that I was something other than a woman with mental illness.”