Editor's note: This is the first story in a four-part series about Sound Community Services, a nonprofit, New London-based organization devoted to helping people with mental health and substance use disorders heal and build lives of connection and meaning.
What constitutes success in life?
Freud famously wrote: “Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.”
Universally, people seem to need to be part of something larger than ourselves, whether it’s a meaningful job, or a warm circle of friends, or a strong relationship.
Likewise, we all endure pain and illness and loss. We all struggle. But when our problems start to win, when our hurt confounds our ability to connect with others and participate in life, it's time for help.
One New London-based social service agency is working to change the conversation we have around mental health and wellness–with compassion, innovation, and hope.
Walk through the wide glass doors at Sound Community Services’ 21 Montauk Ave. location, and the exposed brick tells the story of a building with a long life in the community. Its first incarnation was as the Nameaug School, circa 1889; and framed photographs of the students who passed through those arches grace the walls. Facilities Manager Nathan Ferrance says that when Sound bought and renovated the building in 2011, workers found blackboards "with writing still on them."
But this is no relic. The décor is vibrant and there is a liveliness in the air. Natural light pours in through ample windows. People call out greetings in passing. At first it seems like everyone knows everyone else; yet the warm, energetic atmosphere is part of the culture here.
It’s easy to understand why. The people who come to Sound come from diverse backgrounds and communities. Some have ample resources, others have none. Yet each individual has confronted problems with mental health and/or substance use disorders. Each person has known the despair that comes with intractable pain. And each person is reclaiming their life from that darkness, bit by bit.
Laughter rings in the hall near the Oasis Center on the lower level, as Jason Hyatt, vice president of Programs and Integration, high-fives a young couple checking in with employment services, where weekly updated job postings cover a large billboard.
Job training and placement is one of Sound Community Services’ many offerings, which include helping people build skills and support through individual psychotherapy and group counseling, life skills training, medication-assisted treatment for psychiatric and substance abuse problems, support and social groups, court-mandated treatment, and supportive and supervised housing. Detailed descriptions of each program are available at soundcommunityservices.org, but simply put, the programs are designed to help people build happier lives, and by extension, a healthier community.
Minter Cluff and Derek Rock, who coordinate the job placement program, note that the agency enjoys strong relationships with local businesses.
“People deserve the opportunity to have passions, to support their families, to contribute to society,” Derek said. “We network with people who believe in second chances.”
Further down, the hall near the Oasis Center functions as a gallery, and shadowboxes and other mixed-media artwork – all high-quality, all by clients - line the walls. Over in the center, people gather at tables over coffee as bright decorations hang from the ceiling. The center provides educational and social rehabilitation services, but it really serves as a locus for the Sound community at large. It’s a place for people to build and practice skills they can gradually apply in other contexts; from volunteering for an in-house program to performing volunteer work in the community, for example. And most of all, Oasis is a place for people to connect with others who understand their journey.
“It’s a melting pot of different people, different talents,” says Phil Steffens, program coordinator for Social Rehabilitation. “People here help each other and we have an open door policy; there are people who have completed therapy and been discharged from all clinical services who still come in” to catch up with friends.
The program serves 200 people annually and 20-40 people on any given day, and the center is a peer-led environment. The leadership council dictates the daily groups and activities.
Angela, a cheerful, talkative middle-aged woman, was a full-time, longtime worker at the Groton Subbase before she suffered what she describes as a "breakdown." She now attends OASIS’ Modified Intensive Rehabilitation Program three days a week, which focuses on independent living skills. She also, for the past four years, has coordinated a supply drive for local animal shelters each holiday season. She collects donations of litter, blankets, grooming supplies, food and treats.
“We want to show the animal shelters that we haven’t forgotten them at Christmas,” she explains. Angela herself cares for two cats at home, Midnight and Madison. She is grateful for the support she finds at OASIS. “They do a lot for all of us,” she says. “If it wasn't for them, I couldn't do this [annual drive]. They are highly respectful, and we try to be respectful too. Respect is a two-way street.”
The supportive atmosphere continues over in the outpatient clinic. Beyond a full-wall mural of soft green leaves, the hallway to APRN Kim Milaney’s office is also flanked with original artwork – paintings of oceans and lighthouses, all done by one of her clients. In her cozy office, Milaney sees patients for medication evaluation, monitoring and support.
“Our goal is consistent contact and follow-up,” she says. “We want to stay on top of how people are doing with their symptoms, and to prescribe the best medication possible; which is the least amount with the least side effects.”
The outpatient programs at Sound are among the most utilized and valuable health resources to the community as a whole. Here, people who are working and raising families can come for counseling and help before they lose ground. Here, people who need more structured, consistent support can take part in the intensive and modified intensive rehabilitation programs, which “help prevent hospitalization by stabilizing symptoms,” Jason explained.
Sound is also unique in that Genoa, a full-service pharmacy, operates on-site. This means there are no long gaps spent waiting for needed medication. The pharmacy even offers free home delivery.
“Our emphasis here is on access to care,” Jason explains. “Having your car break down shouldn’t mean going without medication.” Genoa can also organize the prescription into doses by day or time of day.
The myriad avenues to care also encompass people with serious mental illness and psychiatric disabilities. In addition to a host of short and long-term housing programs where life skills (cooking, cleaning, money management, etc.) are developed and practiced on site, clients can also qualify for at-home intensive psychiatric rehabilitation.
Another dimension in Sound's spectrum of services is the behavioral health clinic. Research shows that people with a significant mental health issue have a 20-25% lower life expectancy than their peers. “This is due to compounding factors,” Jason explains. "There are health problems, there are socio-economic issues. These people, in a very real sense, are struggling to live.” The clinic’s purpose is to integrate care across a range of areas - medical, dental, and mental health: making sure someone with chronic asthma has access to a primary care physician, for example. And the ultimate goal is to soften health impacts for both for the individual and community as a whole. “Emergency room visits are an expensive, disruptive way to manage symptoms,” Jason says, yet the ER is what people resort to when they reach a crisis.
The emergent health needs of clients also drives the formation of new intervention programs at the agency, including targeted help around issues like hypertension, diabetes and smoking cessation.
"Health really comes last for people in survival mode, but until those core needs are met, you can’t work on anything else,” he adds.
But when those needs are met, when people start to get healthier, and free? What happens next can be pretty spectacular. The best thing about working at the agency, Jason and others say, is watching small triumphs build into new ways of life.
Over in another wing, the large, comfortable couches in the AXIS Center are empty. The big- screen TV is off. DJ Joseph-Exum, the community outreach case manager, laughs. “It’s empty here because everybody has a job right now. Everybody's working! Which is a great thing.”
AXS helps people age 18-25 transition into adulthood, and build positive relationships in their communities and with each other. Many have aged out of the foster care system and now “they’re homeless or couch surfing,” DJ explains. “We try to reach those young people who don’t have any kind of placement or support.”
Both DJ and Program Coordinator Mike Morgan say they have a special place in their heart for these young people. Both were raised in New London and came up through New London public schools. Both very intentionally looked for a career path that would let them help improve their community.
“I always wanted to give back,” Mike said. “When I played sports I got great support. I want show younger kids that they can do something, that life is bigger than whatever happened yesterday. …and here we hold them to that standard. We speak to people rather than at people. In this particular area, when someone is feeling a certain way, it’s hard to hide it. But we can wrap that into a conversation.”
“There’s lots of discussion,” DJ chimes in. “Kids tend not to bring drama here. It's a safe space. So there are people connecting who wouldn’t otherwise be having these conversations.”
Like the OASIS Center, AXS gets a lot of foot traffic from former participants. “There’s a lot of pride in being the first wave or second wave [to come through]. The people who come here really take ownership of this place,” Mike adds.
For more information, visit soundcommunityservices.org or call 860-439-6400