Mental health patients improve wellness, relationships through new program

Published on May 16, 2017

Doctors and scientists call them “comorbidities” — when a person suffers from two chronic diseases simultaneously.

For patients already living with severe mental illness, the list of common comorbidities is long: heart disease, cancer, diabetes and beyond. Some of these physical ailments are made worse by effects of medication; others are lifestyle choices. As a result, the life expectancy for someone with severe mental illness is 25 years shorter than the general population.

A new program called Health 360 aims to buck this trend in Placer County by integrating physical and mental health efforts. Funded by a four-year federal grant, the program offers wellness activities to existing mental health patients, along with direct access to primary care. 

“They have to address the whole body of the whole person,” said client Debra Voris. “All of that together is what heals a human being. If you're treated like a human being and you're cared for like a human being, you find the process speeds up a lot. You find that you're actually healing quicker.”

Clients can take their pick from walking, hiking and running groups; nutrition programs; stretch and strength classes; choir; music; swimming; smoking cessation and more. Each client is paired with a health coach and has direct access to medical providers. 

In just the first six months of the program, 63 percent of clients in the program lost weight and nearly 30 percent dropped below the “at risk” threshold for carbon monoxide levels from smoking. 

Shane Arroyo participates in walking and running groups, and has run several 5Ks with fellow clients. He’s lost 23 pounds so far this year, and is eyeing the scale in anticipation of dipping below the 300 pound mark. 

But even more importantly, he said, are the relationships he’s formed with others in the group. 

“We're supporting each other. We're like family.”

Indeed, mental illness can often be isolating — Voris describes “sequestering” herself from the world — and so the social benefits are as meaningful as the physical.

“The way that I've built (the program) is about building community and building a sense of belonging for my clients,” said Gaea Pope-Daum, a registered public health nurse with Placer County and coordinator of Health 360. 

Joann Petunis is schizophrenic and bipolar. She has been unable to work, but sitting alone in her apartment deepened her depression. 

“Getting out and being with other people that have I have something in common with is really good,” she said.

The health coaches also have special insight into the challenges their clients face: Two of them are alumni of the program, having gone from clients to employees.

Health coach Harold Chastain had been out of work for years and struggled with depression and anxiety. He started hearing voices. 

“Finally it got bad enough, I had to have some help,” he said. “So I came to Cirby Hills.”

At the county’s Cirby Clubhouse in Roseville, he found medication that worked for him — and he found the walking club. He lost 56 pounds and his blood sugar has improved dramatically. He began joining other groups, from choir to stretching.

But employment was still elusive. And so, when Pope-Daum needed to hire additional health coaches for the program, she saw a chance to help motivated clients get back into the workforce. 

“It was sort of holding us accountable for how much are we really believing in the recovery model,” she said. 

Chastain and another client applied, interviewed among a pool of candidates, and were hired. Today, he wears a Placer County employee badge and helps others navigate programs and services as a peer advocate. In April, he began leading his first class, a journaling workshop. 

“That first-hand experience lets us talk to people, and it also lowers their defenses more to know that we’ve gone through it,” he said. “I feel like I’ve come through the brambles, and look back and go ‘C'mon, it's this way!’” 

On a recent Friday afternoon in a corner of a room at the Cirby Clubhouse, a handful of Health 360 choir members sang out in harmony: 

Sometimes in our lives, we all have pain; we all have sorrow 
But if we are wise, we know that there's always tomorrow. 
Lean on me, when you're not strong 
And I'll be your friend. I'll help you carry on. 

“I love the fact that we get to do these sort of different and new things,” said Pope-Daum. “There's an incredible amount of enthusiasm and love and passion in what we're doing.”