BETSY REED: Mental Health Matters; Years of service

Each year the Governing Board of West Michigan Community Mental Health celebrates milestone anniversaries of staff and board members. Among those recognized this year are Faith Nekola and Jim Thomas, with 35 years and 30 years of service as staff, respectively.

Faith and Jim both started their CMH careers Mason County CMH: Faith in 1979, Jim in 1984. (Prior to the merger in 1996, Lake, Mason, and Oceana Counties each had their own CMH.) Each has held several different jobs but has spent years working in CMH programs for people with developmental disabilities.

In the 1970s and 1980s, CMH served far fewer people than today. At that time, many local people with mental illnesses lived in the state hospital in Traverse City, while many people with developmental disabilities lived the Regional Center in Muskegon.

In the early 1980s there was a push to send people in the institutions home to their native communities. Faith and Jim were heavily involved in this transitional time.

CMHs became responsible for providing services to help people successfully live in their communities. They still are—but a lot has changed. Faith shared that one of the most significant changes, after deinstitutionalization, was the advent of person-centered planning (PCP).

Prior to PCP, CMH workers used their own judgment to decide what was best for a person, including where he would live, his daily activities, and the skills he would learn. Parents or family members might weigh in, too. But the person being treated wasn’t given a central role in deciding what his or her life would be like. “Thinking back,” Faith said, “I can’t believe we planned people’s lives without their input.”

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, all that began to change. The State sent out trainers to teach CMH workers how to put the people they served—even those with significant disabilities—in the driver’s seat when it came to planning their treatment and their lives. Soon it became a required standard of treatment. “PCP is wonderful,” Faith said. “It was exactly what was needed to have people live successfully in their home communities.”

Jim recalled an “aha” moment that came parallel to the person-centered planning movement. Staff were having trouble working with a middle-aged man who had come home to Mason County after living most of his live in the Regional Center. “It’s hard to imagine,” Jim said, “that we let someone live there for 40 years. We would hope that society would never allow that to happen again.” The man was hitting and spitting at people—behaviors common in people who lived for long periods in institutions. Staff were frustrated. “We learned that people didn’t get better until we started seeing them as people, not as behaviors.” The abovementioned man, for example, had to be recognized as someone with strengths and abilities, with likes and dislikes and personal preferences—just like anyone else.

As CMH continued its work of integrating people into community life, there were more lessons learned. There was a tendency to want to be protective caregivers, Jim said. He mused: “We thought that because of their disabilities, no one could love these folks like us. No one could care for them like us.” He told of a woman who moved from an Adult Foster Care home into her own apartment. She had been seen as a cranky person before; in her own place she did well. When she passed away years later, CMH staff were surprised to see the turnout at her funeral. “There were people there we didn’t even know,” Jim said. “We found there were lots of people out there who can love and care for the people we serve.”

Many more things have changed over the years, Faith and Jim both said. The money flowed more freely then. The people CMH serves now spend more time interacting with the public than they used to. Paperwork and regulations have multiplied. “We have to operate a lot more like a business now,” Jim said. WMCMH serves many more people, has a much greater number of staff, and offers a larger array of services to adults and children.

But some things have stayed the same. “Everyone who came in was given a friendly greeting and treated with respect,” Faith recalled, including the people served. “And that has only gotten stronger over the years.” She added: “There was a true commitment to wanting to provide good care and treatment and bringing people home to their communities. I think that has always been a constant. And we treat each other well.”

At the end of the calendar year, Jim will personally go through another transition as he closes his career at WMCMH and enters retirement. He plans to enjoy the freedom to do the things he likes to do when he wants to do them.

When asked to share wise words with those younger and less advanced in life’s journey, Jim’s response echoes the lessons he’s learned over the years working with the people served by CMH. He offered: “I have lots of opinions. I have no advice because I’m not living your life. So you see, people don’t need advice. They need to be listened to.”

Betsy Reed is the Quality Assurance and Public Relations Coordinator at West Michigan Community Mental Health.