When young people first come out of a hospital diagnosed with a mental illness, they are often too ill to immediately return to school or work, yet they still need someplace to go and something to do. This is what motivated Carole Stone of Ithaca, New York, to work with others to form a board and incorporate Compos Mentis: Working Toward Wellness Inc. Compos Mentis means, in Latin, “in control of your mind.”
After she was hospitalized for perhaps her fifth manic episode in 1996, Carole and a friend founded the Ithaca Bipolar Explorer’s Club, a peer support group in Ithaca, New York, which has been meeting ever since. But Carole knew that something more was needed for young people who are unable to keep up with work or studies or who have just come out of the hospital. After visiting Gould Farm, a therapeutic farm community in western Massachusetts, Carole felt that many of their values could be implemented in a program here. Gould Farm is a residential program, but Compos Mentis will begin as a day program Mondays through Fridays, and with weekend activities.
The choice to begin the program with organic farming and trail maintenance was deliberate. As the Compos Mentis web site explains, outdoor work is a way to recalibrate rhythms that have gone awry, and farming, gardening and forestry can be done quietly in community with others. In their first program, which begins this April, members and volunteers will practice organic farming on a half-acre plot and raise chickens. Other activities will include group discussions to explore issues that often come with illness, such as feelings of isolation, anger, and boredom, and the challenge of working with a doctor to find the right combination of medicines.
While Compos Mentis has been a dream of Carole’s for twenty years, she was finally able to implement it with the help of other like-minded people, including psychiatrists, therapists and parents who have an ill family member, some of whom belong to the Finger Lakes chapter of NAMI (National Alliance of Mental Illness). Parents know how frustrating it is to have a son or daughter have to withdraw from school, or come home from the hospital, with a lot of time on their hands and nothing productive to do.
The first step for Carole’s group was to find land they could use for the program. Fortunately, about a year ago, a local nature center issued a request for proposals for individuals or a group that would rejuvenate a 40-acre farm owned by the center that had fallen into disuse. Much work will be needed to get the property in shape, and many volunteers have signed up to join in this effort.
One of the underlying principles of Compos Mentis is the importance of community. Illness tends to isolate people, and conventional treatments tend to isolate symptoms and treat them. Compos Mentis is not a treatment program, but a place to find companionship and meaningful work. Apprentices, as participants are called, are required to see their own psychiatrist or psychiatric nurse practitioner and no one on staff will fulfill those roles. Working together, members, guests, family members and volunteers can move to a deeper understanding of what it means to live with illness and thrive.
The program will begin this April 30 with twelve applicants, with expectations of growing in future years. The application process is open to any young adult 18 years or older who has been diagnosed with a mental illness and is willing to work toward feeling well. See the Compos Mentis Web site for more details about criteria, and to download an application.
For a young person being released from the hospital for mental illness, going to a program like Gould Farm or Compos Mentis can make all the difference between reentering work and school successfully, and floundering for years. That’s why we need an alternative like this.
I asked Carole what the hardest part of this project has been for her, and what she learned that might be helpful to others trying to start similar programs:
“The hardest part of the project has been having a dream and making it real, piece by piece. I’ve driven around the countryside many, many times looking for places that might be suitable. And then one day, the Nature Center went looking for people just like us.
“Since then it’s been every bit as much work as people tell you it will be to start something like a new not-for-profit or a new business. You can’t do it alone and you can barely do it with a board of directors. You need people who “get it,” and who volunteer to become part of the undertaking, either because they know what it’s like to live with a mental illness or because someone in their family has, or because they have worked in the field and applaud what you’re trying to do. This is your natural constituency of volunteers, and over and above this you may also find, as we did, people who love the kinds of work you’ll be doing, whether it’s gardening or carpentry or fundraising or accounting, and want to join forces with you. All of this is to the good, because this is a big project, a worthy project, and it deserves to be done right.”
If you are interested in applying to or contributing to Compos Mentis in any way, please contact Carole Stone at firstname.lastname@example.org or 607-277-7114.
Published On: March 19, 2007
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