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Guest column: HELP Court guides victims of mental illnesses past the stigma
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May is National Mental Health Month. Laura Masterson, a certified lay chaplain through The Community of Hope, International, and I would like to share one of the ways our local mental health court helps folks with mental health issues to lead productive lives outside of the criminal justice system. Our perspectives come from a judge who presides over this accountability court and an ecumenical chaplain involved from the start of this initiative.

After watching a number of people over the years struggle with physical health in the HELP (Health, Empowerment, Linkage and Possibilities) Court, as well as weight gain due to medications, as the judge I turned to the community for help. A group of parishioners at Grace Episcopal Church who belong to the Community of Hope, an organization of lay chaplains, took on the challenge. They invited participants in HELP Court to walk a mile around the Brenau campus with them and then have lunch together.

The church volunteers initially set specific agendas for the lunch time together. These “Lunch and Learns,” which touched on different aspects of daily living such as healthy eating, exercise or punctuality, seemed to send a message the volunteers became uncomfortable with — that they were somehow the teacher and that what this opportunity had to offer was for the benefit of the participant alone.

As the chaplain, Laura soon saw that what the participants could teach us, the volunteers, about being honest and real and offering completely differing perspectives was a gift to us that transformed our view of empathy, compassion and service. We could see that true connections were being made by everyone who gathered, and that it was time to put the “learning” component of lunch aside and just talk.

Soon, the church volunteers saw that what the participants could teach them about being honest and real and offering completely differing perspectives was a gift to the volunteers that transformed their view of empathy, compassion and service. They could see that true connections were being made by everyone who gathered, and it was time to put the “learning” component of lunch aside and just talk.

As the activity evolved, as judge I heard praise both from the volunteers and from the participants. I realized this effort was helping to address one of the most serious barriers to the continued stability of the participants: the stigma our culture attaches to people with mental health issues.

The most poignant example of this stigma is one heard very early on in the court. Participants in HELP Court must attend a number of meetings — group therapy, individual counseling, drug testing and others. This means they must discuss their situation with their employers in order to be available.

There are a number of wonderful businesses in our community that are willing to work with their employees to ensure their success in the program. But some are not so understanding.

When I asked one of our early participants if he had spoken with his employer about coming to groups, he said he was not able to be truly honest. He said if he had explained he was going to therapy to learn about his diagnosis as bipolar and skills to help him be successful in society, he would have been ridiculed, called crazy and possibly let go. So he had told his boss he was attending classes for perpetrators of domestic violence, which was accepted without disapproval.

The interactions between church members and court participants, in a setting that is not court, not therapy and not mandated, give each side the freedom to see each other as just people, with struggles and triumphs in daily life, as we all have. And those volunteers spread their greater understanding of people with mental health issues among their wider group of friends and acquaintances. At the same time, court participants have pleasant interactions with caring people other than the “caring professionals” they are required to see.

The experience is so simple but so meaningful. In putting the person before the label and acquiring a deeper, truer understanding of the complexities of mental health, volunteers helped participants to feel like people instead of marked, locked boxes. This gave them the confidence to speak their truths about their struggles and successes, which helped the volunteers see the commonalities of living life in a world where there is hardship.

No matter who you are or what you’re labeled, you will at some point be forced to confront that. When a participant approached the volunteer privately and offered her advice about how to be a better parent, she realized the labels associated with mental illness are true detriments to making real connections with each other.

This type of coming together is crucial for everyone, not just those seeking rehabilitative assistance. Changing our misconceptions into experiences of compassion is the way into understanding. And perhaps after we understand, we change the face of mental health and how we deal with the locked boxes both in ourselves and in others.

The program has been so successful that the Community of Hope is working to replicate this component of HELP Court in other counties.

Kathy Gosselin is a Superior Court Judge presiding over the mental health court and veterans court in the Northeastern Judicial Circuit. Laura Masterson is a certified lay chaplain through The Community of Hope, International. Nancy Richardson is coordinator of the project.

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