Confronting a mental health crisis, whether suffered personally or by a loved one, is not only painful but lonely as well. Those who endure depression, anxiety or other conditions, as well as their family members often do not know where to find support from others who have experienced similar anguish. That loneliness can make the crisis seem more acute and can diminish faith in recovery.
“People generally don’t learn how to deal with mental health situations. We don’t get trained in it. We find ourselves usually in a situation where somebody has had a problem, a crisis, even hospitalization. We’re unprepared, and it can be very isolating,” says Ellen Faran ‘73, the president and CFO of the Cole Resource Center, a non-profit in Belmont, Massachusetts, and ClassACT HR73’s newest Bridge Partner. At the CRC Ellen and other volunteers endeavor “to help those who are facing mental health challenges, both individuals in recovery and family members, live healthy and productive lives.”
These volunteers are all “lay people” who have experienced mental health challenges themselves or have had a family member who has faced them, Ellen said, adding that she became involved in support work after an intense decade of caring for a family member in crisis. She describes Cole volunteers as people who know firsthand that “recovery is achievable and that open conversation and mutual support are invaluable in moving forward.”
As part of a three-person leadership team, Ellen helps not only to manage the administrative tasks of the resource center but also to guide the seven or eight other volunteers who contribute to its activities. This small team helps an estimated 500 people a year through the Center’s resource referral services and its support groups and Workforce program.
To patients and families, the chance to be heard and advised by people who have lived through similar experiences helps to banish the stigma too frequently attached to mental health crises. Peer support is particularly valuable immediately after a crisis, Ellen observed. “What we find is that the voice of lived experience is a very important and effective voice for people dealing with this.”
Other fraught transitions such as discharge from a hospital, a return to college, or a move into independent housing can also be eased with involvement in a peer support group, Ellen explained. The empathy and practical advice that strengthens a person in transition comes from people who themselves have felt the fear and aloneness of embarking on the next phase of a recovery or watching a loved one take that step. What results from this circle of receiving help and then feeling knowledgeable and strong enough to pass it on is the spirit of community on which Cole Resource volunteers pride themselves.
“We try to talk about ourselves as the community where you might enter the community in some state of crisis, but you end up staying and sharing with others and helping others, and that’s part of your journey toward recovery,” she explained.
For family members of a person with a mental health crisis, this caring community often is a godsend. Many of them, Ellen said, have no background in mental health and are unfamiliar with the meaning of their child’s or their spouse’s diagnosis. “The symptoms are very overlapping,” she added. “It can take a very long time to get an accurate diagnosis, sometimes years.” Family members often are struggling to make sense of this medical information while caring for a beloved person who has just left the hospital or has had to interrupt a year of college because of a psychotic break, she added.
Grief for the way one was before the onset of a mental health crisis or grief for lost dreams cherished for a child often befall someone who seeks out the Cole Resource Center. “You may have thought you were raising a professional lawyer, doctor, engineer, whatever, and it turns out they have a health condition that makes that overly stressful for them and they need to seek another path. You, the family member, have to let go of whatever expectation that was.” The task then is to embrace a new vision of what will be a healthy and productive life for your child, she added.
On the Cole Resource Center website, one mother recalled the distress of those first days and months as well as the haven that the Cole Resource Center became. “The warm welcome and caring at the Cole Center has already had a profound impact on my life. As the mother of a child recently diagnosed, I have felt so alone, terrified, and confused...The time, attention, endless resources and guidance so freely offered by the volunteer staff have been of such value to me.” During such a crisis the Cole volunteers can provide referrals to outpatient treatment programs, housing options, and educational programs.
“A number of women who have been part of our family support group have told us that they have moved on from just feeling helpless and hopeless to understanding how they can go forward,” Ellen said.
Fewer men come to the Cole Resource Center seeking help than women, a trend frequently observed by mental health practitioners. Yet those who have joined the men’s peer support group, men in their 40s and 50s who have been dealing with mental health conditions for years, have found encouragement sharing hopes and fears with others who have experienced similar emotions. “They find that talking with other men is much more comfortable for them than joining a mixed support group,” Ellen said.
An unexpected health crisis can cause a person to lose sight of who they are, of the vocation or skill that once shaped their identity. The Cole Resource Center’s Workforce Development Program helps to remind clients that they are more than a patient or a caregiver and supports them in finding a meaningful purpose in the workplace or elsewhere. When clients are ready to begin a job search, they often must contend with previously unforeseen challenges like the lingering effects of their illness, their loss of self-esteem or the unjust stigma of a mental health condition.
“They face a particular challenge -- if you think about how difficult job hunting is for anybody, having to present yourself and sell yourself to people and then add the layer of a recent health crisis that has likely interrupted your career path,” Ellen said.
Along with helping clients with job hunting skills like networking, resume writing, and interviewing, the Workforce program’s online Job Club includes discussions of disability rights, employee rights and whether it’s advisable at certain times or with certain employers to disclose a mental health condition. This counseling allows participants to regain a sense of purpose and confidence and to identify the right next step for them. “It’s a program for people in recovery who are ready and able to work,” Ellen said.
Since its start more than 25 years ago, the Cole Resource Center has had an informal association with McLean Hospital, the renowned psychiatric institution affiliated with Harvard Medical School. McLean has provided the center with office space and remains one of its clinical partners. That partnership has helped Ellen and the other volunteer leaders refine their programs, build their model, and learn what is effective in helping patients and family on the path to recovery.
As a non-profit offering customized, individual referrals for treatment programs, Cole volunteers have witnessed firsthand the critical shortage of clinical practitioners and other services like outpatient clinics and housing programs. During the pandemic, as depression and anxiety swelled throughout the general population, the situation worsened.
But encouraging trends suggest to Ellen that the stigma of a mental health illness is fading as more and more people come to see it as a condition that needs to be managed like any other chronic health problem. “I have a lot of faith in young people who are talking more naturally about their own situations,” she said. Ellen is also heartened by progress in the ways that individuals and families are now included in treatment planning, and by the police departments that now provide training in behavioral health response to their members.
In keeping with their determination to deliver peer support despite setbacks, the Cole Resource Center volunteers quickly adapted to the pandemic in 2020 by switching to virtual delivery of services by Zoom or phone. They discovered that many clients found online meetings easier in terms of time constraints or lengthy commutes. “Actually, we’re not making any immediate plans to return in person, and there’s no particular pressure to do that,” Ellen said.
Nonetheless, the Cole Resource Center leaders continue to grow their community gradually, often by word of mouth. With their core knowledge of resources centered in Massachusetts and New England, they have no immediate plans to expand beyond that area. At the same time these professional volunteers have worked hard in the last year on administrative tasks like improving their database and honing their communications, including adopting a new logo designed by a client with graphic expertise. They have written a procedures manual and developed new training programs for the leaders who identify resources and point clients toward them. All of these efforts enhance the value of the Cole Resource Center as a model for other communities.
As president Ellen draws on what she learned as a Winthrop House English concentrator and at Harvard Business School to guide the non-profit through a time of transformation. “Writing helps me think. I clarify my thoughts as I’m writing something,” she said. The Harvard MBA that helped her eventually become head of MIT Press before retiring also provided the accounting and management skills she uses now to buttress the Cole Resource Center.
In summing up the impact of her Harvard education on her role at CRC, Ellen said “The main thing my Harvard education left me with is this enthusiasm for learning.” That zest, she said, has helped her figure out things like how to send bulk email through the database system and how to put an image on the website. “I’m 71 years old and I’m learning new little tricks all the time. It’s really fun.”
As the Cole Resource Center stands poised for purposeful growth, the members of ClassACT HR73 can play a role by offering advice on legal, human resources and other structural issues faced by nonprofits. Working virtually, ClassACT volunteers can join as researchers who locate mental health resources or help with outreach efforts that expand the Center’s network of health care providers and other non-profits.
Finally, by donating to the Cole Resource Center, ClassACT members can ensure that the extraordinary work done by Ellen and her fellow volunteers can continue to support patients and their families at times of great need.
The value of that work is evident in the words that one member of the Cole Resources community included on their website:
“Yesterday I was living in the shadow of my illness in isolation, loneliness, and despair. Today within the safe, supportive, and compassionate harbor of the Cole Center, I am actively living my recovery. The Cole Center has been a powerful catalyst for a dramatic renewal of my confidence and self-worth.”