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Newer treatments help break old stigma of mental illness

WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley

Last part of a series

Mental illness treatments have improved dramatically over the years, but past methods left scares and a stigma for those seeking help.  In our on-going Mental Health Initiative project, WBFO’s senior reporter Eileen Buckley looks at today’s methods offering a new direction in the last part of our series.  

“The treatment for mental illness, at least as we see it today, really is a relatively new treatment for severe mental illnesses – medications – the first two lithium and thorazine were developed in the late 40’s and early 50’s,” said Michael Cummings, vice chair of Psychiatry for the University at Buffalo.

Credit WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley
Inside a treatment room at the new Zoar Valley Recovery and Treatment Center in Gowanda.

Cummings said those drugs opened up new ways to treat people with mental illnesses. And they were approved at a time   when the former Buffalo State Hospital was overcrowded and under-funded.  

“So prior to that there were very few treatments for schizophrenia, for bipolar disorder, for severe depression. Essentially individuals that had those conditions were institutionalized in large state hospitals – in other hospitals – significant  overcrowding – significant under staffing – given the lack of understanding treatment of mental health – a lot of abuse and the negligent I’ve heard – and that’s really where I think the stigma started with our idea of those who have mental illness,” explained Cummings. 

Credit WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley
Looking out the window of the former Buffalo State Hospital on the Richard Olmsted Campus.

“People always call them madhouse someplace – don’t they? Put her in some place,” from the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock movie Psycho. The character Norman Bates declares a psychiatric center as a ‘madhouse’ stigmatizing how mental illness looked.         

As treatment with drugs became more common, deinstitutionalization began.  Dr. Celia Spacone is recently retired as executive director of the Buffalo Psychiatric Center.  

“So we learned that people could go back to the community. We learned that medications helped. They gave them enough symptom relief to be able to function. Now there’s a certain percentage – that we haven’t gotten the right treatment for yet, but we’re hopeful,” Spacone described.          

The old psych center was replaced with a new - downsized facility next door that opened in 1974.  It was a time in the nation when there was a drive to create community-based facilities instead of locking people up.   

But that created new problems. Some became homeless; others wound up in jail. Spacone explained that at one point the psych center housed 3,000 patients. Today the psych center houses only 156-in-patient residents.

“It’s the individuals have the most difficult to treat symptoms – have been retractable –they’ve tried different treatments – they haven’t worked – people who are seen to be dangerous to themselves or others potentially,” Spacone said.   

Credit WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley
Inside the waiting room at the new Zoar Valley Recovery and Treatment Center in Gowanda.

“We have to have facilities that are welcoming and modern so people that come in can feel very comfortable coming in,” declared Dr. Ann Sullivan, commissioner of the State Office of Mental Health. 

Sullivan tells WBFO News that just like the rest of medicine – treatment of mental illness has come a long way.  

“We’ve all learned, both in mental health and general health that prevention – overall wellness is a critical piece as treating someone who is having an acute episode of illness and I think that is growing across medicine all across the country,” Sullivan stated.  

Now there’s an effort to create new mental wellness and behavioral centers to serve communities.  We visited the new Zoar Valley Recovery and Treatment Center in Gowanda.

“Our society right now has a lot of chaos and crises and people experiencing different traumas, so we’re here to help whether it is for the children or adults,” said Dr. Jennifer Schwenkbeck, psychologist and program manager of the Buffalo Psychiatric Center’s clinic in Gowanda. 

She noted that when Gowanda Psychiatric Hospital closed back in the 1990’s – a void was left for those in needed of mental health services – especially in a rural region.        

“Whether it is here in the office for psychotherapy or medication management we have in home-home visits, we have on-call emergency services, children services, children services in the home. We have parent classes, regular group therapy,” Schwenkbeck. “How we can help and improve their overall daily functioning and link them to what supports they may need.”

The new clinic also includes Western New York Children’s Psychiatric Center -- with psychologist and social workers on site/

Providers are getting help from those who are dealing with their own mental illness.  Stephen Nawotiniak is director of Peer Services at the Buffalo Psychiatric Center. He is also bipolar.

“So I have one foot in the provider world and one foot in the peer world – our whole thing is all about trying to help bring for the patients and the members hope… so this is hope that you know what – there’s life ahead,” Nawontiniak said.

Nawontiniak was diagnosed in 2002 when he was 27-years old, but since then, he has already experienced improvements in services.

“It’s not so much of a shame that a lot of times people would feel they had to hide away from things - just the progression of services have improved a lot in the time that I’ve seen it,” replied Nawontiniak.

Meanwhile, providers continue working to eliminate a deep stigma surrounding mental illness.

“If you’re really going to get rid the stigma then you the community has to say this is important to me and that’s why past the walls of any clinic – it’s how the community sees it,” Sullivan responded.

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