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Vikingland CSP strives to break stigma attached to mental illness

May is Mental Health Month, and local advocates are passionate about building community awareness on the topic of mental illness.

Two events are being planned - a Balloon Release for Recover and an open house at the Vikingland Community Support Program (see pullouts for complete details).

One local woman (referred to as Jane to protect her identity) is thrilled with the mental health services provided locally and wanted to share her story so others are aware that help is available.

"Jane" has suffered from mental illness since age 22. She was hospitalized for a time in her early 20s, and then "maintained" a functional level of living through medication and twice a year visits to a psychiatrist. She was first diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, which is characterized by recurring episodes of elevated or depressed moods and distortions in perception.

She was later re-diagnosed as suffering from bipolar disorder (abnormally elevated energy levels, cognition and mood and depressive episodes).

She experienced periods of severe depression and had negative side effects from medications, including a weight gain that brought her up to 300 pounds at one point.

Despite her problems, she was able to function in society, married and had two children, both of whom are now grown.

She relocated to Alexandria with her husband in 1997 and a year later was divorced. Things came crashing down for her in 2004. It was during that time that she finally found the help she needed through the Vikingland Community Support Program (CSP).

"I've come a long way," she said proudly. "CSP's services have really helped me. My family says I am doing better than ever before in my life, and I am 50 years old!"

The thing Jane is most grateful for is the support network she has built up through Vikingland CSP.

"I never had a lot of friendships or social settings to be part of," she said. "It has really helped me to have a support system, including a counselor who I meet with once a week who listens and gives me advice. I've met a lot of people through CSP and have made good friends."

Jane was so taken with the program that she now works for it, serving as center coordinator and planning special events and doing some secretarial work.

She is a strong advocate of all the program has to offer.

"It is so important for people to accept help," she said. "A lot of people are scared of getting help, afraid they may be institutionalized.

"There are places and people that can help us," she added. "The Vikingland CSP staff are sincere professionals and have helped me so much."

Jane also hopes to raise awareness in the community about mental illness, which is often highly misunderstood.

"It's a difficult thing for people to talk about," she said. "But there are different levels and types of mental illness. It's a manageable disease, and people can be very functional if they have the right medications and get help."

About Vikingland Community Support Program (CSP)

Vikingland CSP provides community based services and support to individuals with mental illness. The program promotes self-sufficiency by therapeutic interventions and skills training to improve independent functioning, enhance social competence and achieve psychiatric stability.

Services are available to anyone age 18 or older living in Douglas County who is eligible for medical assistance and/or has a serious and persistent mental illness diagnosis with functional impairments.

Services include:

Basic living and social skills. Education and assistance in the areas of personal care, food preparation, shopping, housekeeping, money management, community resources, benefits assistance and relapse prevention skills.

Community intervention. Interventions may be conducted with other agencies, employers, landlords or family members to allow consumers to live as independently as possible. Intervention is provided with intent to alleviate or reduce barriers of community integration.

Medication education. Services are coordinated with medication management and designed to instruct consumers and family members on how to follow procedures to maintain prescription medication regimes.

Supported employment. Staff works with consumers to find employment suitable to their needs. Skills training is offered in areas of job search, job readiness skills and interviewing.

Day treatment. Group therapy sessions are held to help facilitate recovery. Psychotherapy groups focus on independent living skills, recreation/leisure skills and occupational therapies.

Psychosocial rehabilitation/illness management. Services emphasize consumer empowerment concepts. Time is spent increasing insights into illness triggers and warning signs and increasing awareness of self-preservation techniques.

Crisis assistance. This after-hour service is available to consumers actively receiving services by calling 1-877-853-6416.

Friendship center. The center is open from 1 to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and evening and weekend hours. The center is staffed by consumer volunteers and a consumer-run advisory council makes decisions about center activities and finances. Peer support and socialization are a major part of the center's purpose.

Tara Bitzan

Tara Bitzan is editor of the Echo Press. She joined the company in 1991 as a news reporter. A lifelong resident of Douglas County, Tara graduated from Brandon High School and earned a bachelor of arts degree in mass communications and English with a minor in Scandinavian Studies from Moorhead State University. She and her husband, Dennis, and their children live near Alexandria.

(320) 763-1211