Before I started working at Laurel House, became a social worker, and got involved in rtor.org, my first encounter with the mental health system was as a family member. That was in 1987. I was thirty and had just returned from five years in the Peace Corps. My younger brother Michael met me at JFK International in New York. He seemed confused, but so was I, having been away from family and the grand scale of life in the developed world for so long.
I felt I barely knew my brother anymore. The ride from the airport didn’t help, as he was speaking to me in garbled sentences that I barely understood. When he pulled into LaGuardia Airport, across Queens from JFK, I knew there was a problem.
“What are we doing here?” I asked.
“We’re here to pick up Jay,” he said.
“I’m Jay. Who do you think is in the car with you?”
First Psychotic Episode
I didn’t know it then, but my brother was having his first psychotic episode.
No one knew it at the time. Both my parents were in Florida tending to another family crisis. My first day back in the US was a nightmarish swirl of erratic behavior and anguished emotion as Michael tried to explain the bizarre things happening to his mind and body.
The next day I called the psychiatrist who had started treating him a few weeks before, and he said, “take him to Silver Hill Hospital immediately.”
Silver Hill Hospital – Not What I Expected
Silver Hill Hospital is a nonprofit psychiatric hospital in New Canaan, Connecticut, established in 1931.
We arrived at the Silver Hill campus at about 7 PM that night. I had spent the last 30 hours with my deeply troubled brother, who could not sleep and was becoming increasingly agitated with each hour. I was culture-shocked, exhausted, and afraid for Michael’s sanity. He was even more afraid. I was having him admitted to a “mental hospital,” and neither one of us knew what to expect.
At that time, the intake unit was located in a small cottage of a house aptly known as Little House. What I remember most about that night was the gentle manner and kindness of the staff.
There were other patients in a cozy sitting room, watching TV. They looked like normal people who maybe just needed some rest and respite, not the tormented souls and overmedicated zombies I expected from Hollywood’s old snake-pit depictions of psychiatric hospitals. I saw Michael’s face visibly relax as we passed through the common area to the private room where he would be staying.
By the time I left Silver Hill a few hours later, I was at peace with my decision to take my brother there. It didn’t feel good having him admitted. But I sensed he was in a safe place where he would be looked after and taken care of, and could hopefully find his way back to being the brother I had known before I left the country five years earlier.
Over the next six months, I would visit Michael frequently at River House, a beautiful old home overlooking the Silvermine River, which today serves as part of Silver Hill’s wider Transitional Living Program (TLP). As I watched him improve but still struggle to come to terms with and manage the schizophrenia he was said to have, I learned about mental illness and the kind of support and care that helps a person recover. Not long after, I took a job at Laurel House in Stamford, CT, and began my career in mental health.
Laurel House and the Genesis of Resources to Recover
Laurel House, Inc. provides the kind of community-based rehabilitative services that complement and ideally follow the inpatient care, transitional living, and intensive outpatient services of a Silver Hill. Psychiatric hospitals generally treat people in acute crisis or in need of detox or assessment and evaluation. Laurel House provides the non-clinical community-based services that come after that: help finding a job or succeeding in school; access to safe, affordable housing with support; and skills-based training for community integration and improved quality of life.
In 2014, Linda Autore (Laurel House’s President and CEO) and I started www.rtor.org, a gateway website that helps families and individuals connect with mental health resources. We started this service because of the many calls we received from family members desperate to find help for a loved one in need. Laurel House might have been a solution further down the road, but in many cases, a more urgent response was required, such as from a Silver Hill or other type of acute care.
Linda and I would listen, acknowledge the pain and fear these families experienced, and recommend treatment providers, sometimes locally in Fairfield County but other times several states away, digging into our network of contacts. That process of listening, supporting, and connecting families with help turned into the Resource Specialist support service at the heart of Resources to Recover and rtor.org.
Return to Silver Hill 29 Years Later
Thirty-five years ago, I had been on the other side of the table, a concerned family member, worried and confused, not knowing where to turn for help. Fortunately, a psychiatrist in Greenwich recommended Silver Hill Hospital. Twenty-nine years later, I returned to the Silver Hill campus with another loved one, no longer as confused as I was the first time but just as worried, if not more so.
When that person, so dear to me, needed help, there was no question of where to go this time.
The hospital’s footprint had expanded with several new buildings added to the site, but the campus still had its bucolic, country feel. The staff were just as kind, caring, and welcoming, and the environment felt safe to me. That year my family celebrated Thanksgiving at Main House of Silver Hill, enjoying a delicious turkey dinner with all the trimmings. I never expected to spend Thanksgiving in a psychiatric hospital, but that year I was truly grateful to have a place where we could celebrate together as a family in such caring company.
Silver Hill and my family have a history together. It’s not the kind of history anyone ever hopes to need, but that’s the way it is sometimes; mental illness tends to run in families. When your family is in crisis, you look to the safe and familiar for comfort and seek the best in care.
Sponsorship and Looking Forward
In recent months, Silver Hill Hospital and Laurel House have partnered to deliver improved continuity of care to families in Fairfield County and surrounding areas. I am grateful for the leadership funding we receive from Silver Hill for rtor.org, reflecting our shared values in supporting mental health and those in need. The news of this sponsorship last summer felt like a validation of my work with Laurel House and Resources to Recover and our mission: connecting families and individuals with resources and opportunities to achieve and sustain mental health to lead fulfilling lives in the community. I had come full circle in my journey as a mental health professional and a family member.
In future blog posts, I will write more about this convergence of roles as a professional and family member, the relationship between Silver Hill Hospital, Laurel House, and rtor.org, and the continuity of care they provide, from inpatient care, assessment and evaluation, transitional living programs, and outpatients services to supported education and employment, cognitive and life skills training, housing and community support services.
If you or someone you know experiences mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialist can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community, including Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan, CT. Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.
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