PATH Outreach Worker Knows First Hand the Struggles of Mental Illness
It's a Tuesday afternoon and Tommy Russell is talking to a homeless man downtown near Central Parkway. You will find Tommy out and about most days, helping people who do not have housing and may be literally living on the streets of Cincinnati. That’s because Tommy is on the PATH team at Greater Cincinnati Behavioral Health Services (GCBHS). PATH stands for Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness. The team builds relationships with homeless individuals and connects them to mental health and other services (such as housing). PATH uses a unique staffing model which includes Peer Workers - someone who has a diagnosis of mental illness but has recovered. This is because research has found that the lived experience of a peer allows them to connect more easily to people with severe trust issues who sometimes feel there is no hope for them.
Tommy is a peer worker - one of those special people who know what it's like because he too needed help at one time.
According to Tommy, his mental health crisis came out of nowhere. His parents thought it was just a phase that he'd grow out of but his symptoms grew worse. He graduated high school in 2002 and was first hospitalized around Labor Day of 2003. About that period in his life Tommy recalls, "I kind of ignored my illness and didn’t ask questions. I initially took medications but I wasn't great about it because they didn’t seem to work. When I think back, those early years were really bumpy. I was trying to live a normal life and work but things were never really right." In his early 20's, Tommy was hospitalized multiple times. He started to receive some counseling and care management and when he felt that things were a little more stable, he decided to move out of state with a friend. But those three years away from Cincinnati without a support system and no mental health treatment caused things to be pretty bleak by the time he moved back to Cincinnati in 2019. That's when he enrolled in services from GCBHS.
He was put on an Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) team that focused on getting him stabilized. He needed help managing his Schizoaffective, bipolar disorder which can create sweeping mood cycles from manic episodes to deep depression. Due to his difficulty with medication, the team "was willing to work with me to make sure that I was a part of the process," says Tommy.
Tommy had other issues to contend with. His parents had moved during his absence so he had no place to live and no job. On top of that, this was during the early part of the pandemic. Using GCBHS protocols intended to keep staff and clients safe, the ACT team was able to get Tommy to job interviews, helped him obtain a copy of his birth certificate, and get his license. Says Tommy, "When I was being a pain in the butt, they were really understanding. They bent over backwards to help me get on my feet."
By 2022, Tommy was doing great and ready to be discharged from services at GCBHS. He was working in retail but it wasn't something he wanted to do long-term. It was then that his care manager suggested he apply for a peer support position on the PATH team. Tommy was hired as a GCBHS employee last October. "I think the big thing so far, says Tommy, "is the need to be compassionate and understanding with everyone I come into contact with. It brings me a lot of joy to see the change in people over the smallest glimmer of hope. They can improve so quickly when they are able to latch onto that."
Tommy is thinking about going to school and becoming a care manager (GCBHS helps staff with tuition reimbursement if they want to further their education in behavioral health). "The support from my coworkers and supervisors here at GCBHS has been great. They have made my training and other processes seamless which is what helps me out the most in my day to day job functions."
When he looks back, Tommy says, "With where I was in 2019…without GCBHS, there's no way I would be able to be where I am and fully functioning. People wouldn’t even recognize the person that I have become.