Through the very inspiring story of one client, Northumberland Hills Hospital is observing Mental Illness Awareness Week – which began Oct. 6 – by taking the opportunity to spotlight the mental-health services available in our region.
Especially the NHH's ACT Team – which stands for Assertive Community Treatment.
The NHH press release identifies the client only as Noah, saying there was a time when mental illness had so interrupted his life that he couldn't enjoy the simple pleasure of coffee with friends.
“He had turned away from himself, his job, and from family and friends who cared about him,” the press release related.
“He was scared and alone, obsessed with the colours black and white, and convinced that he had the power to change the colours in the world - and if he didn’t, or couldn’t, harm would come to him, and to others.”
It wasn't a matter of being on drugs, Noah said. He went to school, got a job and a license, made friends and seemed to have his life on track. He was working and living with his parent in his mid-20s, when signs of mental illness became evident.
It began with his obsession with colour, and then with numbers. He recounted what he recalls as one of his worst moments, finding himself in a farmer's field near his parents’ Roseneath home. And he did not want to live.
Diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, Noah persevered in the face of his condition and found the help he needed. After multiple hospitalizations, a lot of work on his part, and years of support from his parents, neighbours, outreach community mental health workers, and psychiatrists, he now lives independently – and even volunteers to help those challenged by mental-illness journeys of their own.
He wanted to share his story for Mental Illness Awareness Week as a message of hope for the one in five Canadians dealing with mental illness today.
Though his journey to recovery is ongoing, Noah is very grateful for the circle of supports that helped him to get to the good place he’s in today—especially his friends in the ACT Team.
One of 80 Northumberland clients served today by NHH’s ACT Team, Noah (now 37) is a strong advocate for the power ACT had to help him when he needed it most.
A small team, ACT consists of a variety of clinicians that includes a case manager, nurses, a social worker, an occupational therapist, an addiction specialist, a vocational specialist and a psychiatrist.
Though they are based out of NHH’s Elgin Street offices, and overseen by Jennifer Cox - Integrated Director of Community Mental Health who links care between Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Services and both Northumberland hospitals - most ACT Team members actually spend little of their time in the office. They spend far more time supporting people living with severe mental illness in the community.
Clients range in age from 18 to 65. With the intensive support of the ACT Team, most are able to maintain their goal of staying out of hospital, and out of jail.
ACT Team lead Julia Smith noted in the press release that most of their clients are living with a diagnosis of severe bipolar disorder or schizophrenia,
“We are available to them seven days per week/365 days a year, using a model that goes to where they are, taking care to the client, be that in their own home, with family, in shelter or on the street.”
Many of NHH’s ACT clients receive daily visits, and sometimes even twice a day. Others are seen weekly.
“Our aim is to fit into the client’s life, as required, so the support is ongoing,” Smith continued.
“Our ACT services are not time-limited, and we work hard to support the whole person as their needs dictate, including mental but also physical and social needs, such as support with activities of daily living like cooking, eating and personal care, housing assistance, help connecting with other community resources, or simply helping with transportation to get to and from a doctor appointment,” she listed.
“Whatever the need may be, we’re there.”
On those occasions when an ACT client is in crisis, and requires hospitalization, the first stop is the NHH Emergency Department. ACT staff accompany the client to the ED, and liaise directly with Mental Health Crisis Clinician Laurie Gallagher.
At this point, Gallagher becomes the lead advocate, and makes sure that they get all the support they need. She also acts as a link back to the ACT team, to keep them informed of the client’s next steps, and helps to work together with the team until the client is discharged back into the community or transferred to a psychiatric hospital.
“The relationship between community support and emergency support is key to our ACT clients’ well-being,” Smith stated.
“It’s a whole-system approach.”
Isolation is one of the biggest challenges faced by those with severe mental illness and. in response to clients’ suggestions, the ACT Team in 2016 opened a space to help combat that. The Living Room, located in the Market Building in downtown Cobourg, now operates two days a week.
Noah has been an important force behind the Living Room service and today, s part of ACT’s stepped-care program of less-intensive support, he takes a lead role in the Living Room’s day-to-day functioning, opening up, locking up, an (with ACT Team staff) assisting other ACT clients who can use it as a downtown drop-in centre for support and friendship.
Reflecting on his journey to the ACT Team, Noah realizes he was lucky.
“My mom knew a guy that knew about the ACT Team, and I got in. It’s been a total changer for me. I’ve got a lot of friends,” he said.
Noah added that the trial-and-error of finding the right mix of medication for his particular problems has left its mark.
“I still have shakes from the last meds,” he explains, showing how his hands shake heavily,
“But I’ve stopped the shaking in my head.
“I got the high more than anything,” he says of his illness when symptoms were at their worst. “Mania was a great feeling.”
For Noah, ACT has become a life-changing social network as well as a clinical lifeline.
“The events they have are great,” he said with a smile.
“We play hockey in the winter, baseball in the summer. There’s a Christmas party, a summer barbecue, floor hockey — it’s great!”
Noah has benefited from it all and, since his mother has also become a volunteer, both now do what they can to help others too.
With scheduled home visits from ACT workers once every two weeks, and appointments every six months with his psychiatrist, Noah (and his family) have the security of knowing they can call on ACT any time as needed.
“I still have times when I think of the stuff I used to focus on, but it just doesn’t stick with me now,” he said.
“The meds I am on cut it off, and - I’ve worked on it.”
His message is that the ACT Team is a safe haven.
“The people are respectful. To anyone else going through the same kind of stuff I went through, you are not alone!”
By talking about mental health in our community, the press release stated, we can work together to help end the stigma associated with mental illness — and help people find the supports they need when they need them.
In the 2018-2019 fiscal year, 4,669 individuals were served by NHH’s Community Mental Health Services programming - almost 500 more than the previous year.
Needs continue to rise. With community partnerships now providing walk-in counselling for adults and youth, as well as crisis support in the Emergency Department and the local M-HEART team (which pairs mental-health professionals with area police services), NHH has a growing list of individual and group services to help support local need.
Where specialized service is not available locally, the press release continued,, “we’re here to help connect.”