Stigma, Stigma, Stigma

I know I am repeating myself but stigma continues to be our number one
enemy. We need more articles like the excellent piece by Sara Foss in the
Schenectady Daily Gazette, highlighting incredible individual resiliency as
well as a recognition of community providers in helping to support strong
individual outcomes. In this case, it features the wonderful work of our
colleagues at RSS, but other providers across NYS including the MHAs also
do this kind of work on a daily basis on shoestring budgets and limited

Fighting stigma of mental illness.
This, despite advances that have been made

Sara Foss | May 29, 2017
The Daily Gazette

The poster designed by Christine Steiner wouldn’t be out of place on a
classroom wall.

It shows a caterpillar and a butterfly beneath a blue sky and bright yellow
sun, and in neat, simple lettering declares “We become what we believe.”

It’s a lovely message, and it reflects Steiner’s growing confidence and
belief in herself after decades of struggle.

Steiner has borderline personality disorder – a serious, often
debilitating, mental illness characterized by unstable moods and behavior.

She told me that BPD caused her to start cutting herself at the age of six,
and that it was only three or four years ago that this harmful pattern of
behavior came to an end. Steiner is 49. For the vast majority of her life,
she has hurt herself.

I met Steiner at the annual poster exhibition and barbecue hosted by the
Altamont-based Rehabilitation Support Services, an organization that
provides treatment and housing for people with psychiatric and substance
abuse disorders.

RSS’ goals go beyond providing housing, however.

The organization strives to help clients achieve their full potential,
whatever that might be, and live as independently as possible.

Not so very long ago, someone like Steiner might have been forced to live
in an institution.

Now, thanks to better treatment options, a more sophisticated understanding
of mental health and the services of RSS, she is able to live on her own,
in her own apartment in downtown Albany. She is doing things that might
once have seemed unimaginable, such as planning a skydiving trip for her
50th birthday and taking trips with her boyfriend.

“I feel good,” Steiner told me. “I feel the best I’ve ever felt.”

For someone with Steiner’s history, this is a remarkable achievement –
cause for celebration, even.

Unfortunately, people with serious mental illnesses still face a stigma,
despite all the advances that have been made.

Steiner was one of the few RSS clients willing to speak with me, in part
because it’s difficult for people with mental health issues to step out of
the shadows and publicly discuss what they’ve been through.

“The stigma of mental illness overlays everything we do,” Glenn Liebman,
CEO of the Mental Health Association in New York State, told me. “It’s the
number one reason why people don’t seek services. People are fearful of
discrimination, whether it’s at their work site or in their personal

This is unfortunate, because treatment and support is often the key to
functioning in society for people with mental illnesses. A lot of progress
has been made, but there’s still a long way to go.

Having lost a friend to suicide, I consider good mental health treatment –
and a willingness to discuss mental health – essential to ensuring that
people with mental illnesses can live full and productive lives.

The main service provided by Rehabilitation Support Services is housing –
both groups homes and supported apartment living. The organization also
runs a program, called personalized recovery oriented services, that
integrates treatment with classes designed to help clients achieve their
goals. Steiner takes several courses through PROS, and is hoping to find a
job soon.

John Paduano, managing director at RSS, said that for many of his
organization’s clients “the biggest challenge is being able to develop
coping skills so they can live a life like you or I do. This is about
helping them meet their life goals, whether that’s having an apartment,
having friends, having a job.”

Steiner is visited at her home by a Rehabilitation Support Services staff
member once or twice a week.

“I lived on my own before, without any support, but I had trouble,” she
said. “I ended up in the hospital.” She added, “I had the skills (to live
on my own). My problem was that I hurt myself.”

The theme of this year’s poster exhibition, which is timed to coincide with
Mental Health Awareness Month, is “I Believe I Can Achieve.”

After I spoke with Steiner, I looked at some of the other posters.

There were inspirational messages, collages and tranquil scenes of animals
and nature. Some listed goals, such as getting a job or doing chores. And
while the artwork was diverse, the underlying sense of hope and optimism
was very much the same from poster to poster.

Looking at the posters, it was easy to imagine a better future for those
with serious mental health illnesses.

Getting there won’t necessarily be easy, but it’s something we can achieve
if we believe in it.

Just like Steiner’s poster says.


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