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Unit provides hope for addicts and mentally ill
Most patients stay for about 5 days but can remain for up to 10 days
Counselor Harry Thompson and Juanita Nicely go over a recovery action plan at Avita Community Properties recently. - photo by Tom Reed

Juanita Nicely craved cocaine four years ago. Now she leads support groups and helps others with their addictions.

Nicely, 53, counts her progress as a success because of personal care centers similar to the new 16-bed crisis stabilization unit that opened in Flowery Branch in April.

Like Nicely, the clients all need specialized help. Some have attempted suicide and others are suffering from depression, drug addiction, paranoid schizophrenia or developmental disabilities.

"Not only do I love it, it has changed my way of life," Nicely said. "I believe I can do anything, and I'm able to be independent. People associate with me, and my family believe I can do it also."

When the stabilization unit run by Avita Community Partners opened April 1, the beds were full in four days. The unit, which provides short-term residential psychiatric care and substance abuse detoxification, is heading up the state's push to move mentally ill individuals out of state hospitals.

"We knew there was a need, and being full is a good thing," said Cheryl Barnet, interim CEO of Avita Community Partners, a nonprofit that serves those with behavioral health, developmental disabilities and addictive diseases in North Georgia. "We start a discharge plan the minute someone comes in, which is great because it gives you a goal."

Most patients stay for about five days but can remain for up to 10 days before moving to transitional housing or Avita's residential treatment program for substance abuse. The unit started as a 6,300-square-foot warehouse that quickly turned into a state-of-the-art facility.

"We were aggressive and pretty determined because we really wanted it to happen," she said. "It's exciting to see it go from blank walls to groups running and the activities working."

The community services can help people treat their crisis situations, live independently, avoid emergency room visits and jail stays, Barnet said.

"The emergency room is often filled with people who have visible injuries or illnesses, and this allows a place for folks to go in crisis," she said. "It's a behavioral health care alternative."

Barnet thinks of the numerous success stories, including a man who moved from homelessness to life as a successful businessman.

"He was in and out, in and out, in and out of the hospital for numerous years, but if you saw him now, you would never know it," she said. "He's very articulate and smart but had a mental breakdown, which could happen to anybody. People think it's not going to happen to their family, but that's not true."

The description makes Nicely think of her own progress.

"When my sister first brought me to Gainesville from Cleveland, I was extremely agitated and angry," Nicely said. "I didn't want to come here or be here. It was a battle of wills every day."

Patients complete a wellness recovery action plan to take steps toward recovery and learn independence. They also attend daily living classes that teach nutrition, communication and work skills.

"After awhile, my attitude began to change, and I began to participate and read the literature," Nicely said. "I began to write in my journal about one thing I accomplished each day, and I became more positive each day that I came to the peer group. I began to make friends, and people showed concern for me."

The peer groups are a key part of recovery, Nicely noted.

"We check in every morning and talk about what's happening in life, and we feel comfortable and have a bond," she said. "Everybody trusts everybody, and we know that what we say won't go any further."

She continues to attend weekly meetings with Harry Thompson, a counselor and Avita's director of adult peer support services.

"We make sure programs are facilitated in a way that gives the client the opportunity to promote their own cause, independence and be advocates for each other," he said. "The groups decide what to discuss for the day, such as communication or coping skills, instead of the staff leading those groups."

Thompson has watched Nicely's growth during the past four years.

"She was covered by her symptoms, and the groups allowed the fog to lift," he said. "She has risen to the occasion and shown herself as astute, independent and capable. She shows others how to take advantage of these groups to live a productive and qualitative life."

Though the unit continues to remain booked and busy, Barnet enjoys watching the clients find their individual paths to recovery.

"If I had one word to describe it, that would be ‘hope,'" Barnet said. "A lot of people lose hope, and it's really sad, especially when they've burned a lot of bridges with family or friends. The goal is to help them regain their lives and put them back together."


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