Merlene Davis: Mental illness center offers help during holidays

Jackie Frazier, left, a peer specialist, led a session with Bonnie Tracy and Dietrich Hubbard, at Participation Station on Tuesday.
Jackie Frazier, left, a peer specialist, led a session with Bonnie Tracy and Dietrich Hubbard, at Participation Station on Tuesday.

The caller had lost his job and his motivation. All he had accomplished that day was to shave. He spoke of family, the coming holidays and of his child.

Like many of us, he simply needed to hear a voice and to know someone was listening to him.

That's exactly what he got when he dialed Participation Station's Warm Line, a non-crisis call center sponsored by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Lexington and the Bluegrass Regional Mental Health — Mental Retardation Board Inc.

The Warm Line is operated by volunteers who are recovering from mental illnesses. Who better to advise or direct callers who might be feeling anxious, isolated and unloved?

Unlike a hot line where callers need immediate intervention, a warm line offers comfort. The people who answer the phone don't diagnose or treat, but they listen and sometimes bring in their own experiences.

Warm lines don't replace hot lines; they complement them.

"There are systems in place for people in a serious crisis, suicidal or being threatened. But if you call the crisis line when you are truly not in a crisis, you won't be able to talk to anyone," said David Riggsby, who was director of quality management at Eastern State Hospital before retiring and was a NAMI board member.

Riggsby helped to establish the peer warm line in May 2010. It is the first and only such service in Kentucky, he said.

A person in recovery, whom Riggsby calls a consumer, is trained to be a peer support specialist. That person can understand a caller's needs because they have been in the same position.

Chris Whittington, a trained volunteer, said most callers just want someone to talk to.

"I have one gentleman who calls just to check in with somebody," he said. "He doesn't have anyone else to talk to.

Jackie Frazier, the receptionist at Participation Station and a trained volunteer, agreed.

"He is able to converse with somebody that knows about mental illness and probably knows what he is going through. We can help de-escalate whatever is happening to him."

Only one volunteer is on duty at a time, so sometimes the volunteer will have to place a call on hold to answer another. Recent studies have found that peer-run warm lines have reduced the number of individuals who are hospitalized, especially with those who call after 5 p.m.

"Mental illness is a very isolating illness," Riggsby said. "People don't go out because it is very uncomfortable for them to be around other people."

To provide a "safe place" for people in recovery, NAMI Lexington established Participation Station, which is also peer supported, in December 2009. Participation Station offers classes, support groups and a place to relax and watch TV or sing karaoke. About a dozen people visit each day, but 100 showed up for a Halloween party, Riggsby said.

The numbers are likely to increase for the center and the warm line during the holidays, he said.

"The holidays are difficult for everyone, and if you complicate that with a mental illness, it just makes it even worse," Riggsby said. "They are struggling with being isolated anyway, and then you compound that with old memories and family issues."

Because this time of year can be stressful, the center is offering a "Surviving the Holidays," class that offers tips to maintain focus. There are support groups that meet at the center on Saturdays and Sundays, too. Classes to build computer skills to become more employable and classes for social skills also are available. The center's motto is "consumer run, consumer driven." All services are free.

Riggsby is always looking for volunteers and would like to find some means of offering a stipend to keep the number of volunteers more reliable.

Meanwhile, anyone who has found holidays challenging should know there are people willing to help.

"If they are dealing with any difficult situation and want to talk with somebody or they want to share something that happened in their day, they can call us," said Sarah Brumfield, Warm Line coordinator.