Mental health is crucial for the overall health of a community. Addressing it is the first step on the road to recovery, and a Rome-based team is providing assistance in a variety of ways.

The Highland Rivers Center, located just off Georgia Route 1, is part of the larger Highland Rivers Health, which operates over two dozen centers across 12 North Georgia counties.

Highland Rivers offers several mental health services, but one of the most critical community lifelines is Assertive Community Treatment (ACT).

The ACT Program, currently provided in Bartow, Floyd, Paulding and Polk Counties, promotes mental health recovery for individuals 18 and older with severe and persistent mental illness.

The program provides services such as symptom assessment and management, crisis intervention, education and community integration, among others. It was conceived as a “hospital without walls.”

“Our ultimate goal is to reduce the number of hospitalizations and incarcerations and keep people stable in the community,” Lyndsey Morda, Director of Crisis Community Services, said in a phone interview. “So instead of going in-patient, we just try to figure out what it is that they need, do crisis intervention, within the community.”

Morda said the ACT team has about 70 participants. Several have been through hospitals and/or jails.

“A lot of our folks have spent majority of their lives in hospitals that are now stable in the community,” Morda said. “Our folks come to us a lot of times with nothing and no one, so we have to start from the ground up. Putting a roof over their head, clothes on their back, get them stabilized on medications.”

“We get to see individuals that, a lot of times, society has given up on,” Morda said. “We get to see them at their worst and then we get to see them at their best.”

Dr. Michael Unger, a psychiatrist and Rome’s ACT team leader, has been working in community psychiatry for more than 20 years.

“The ACT team is really tough because you’re dealing with very severe treatment refractory illnesses,” Unger said. “You’re dealing with a lot of symptoms and poor functioning, but there’s a lot of potential in these people.”

It can be difficult to acknowledge a problem, and can be even more challenging to address it. Unger said bringing individual who need help into the program requires mindset flexibility.

“I assume that they’re distrusting because the multitude of our people have had dozens of involuntary psychiatric hospitalizations throughout their whole life before they even get to the team,” Unger said. “Every person is a unique individual so basically I meet them where they’re at. It’s a real partnership kind of thing. It’s not a me versus you. It’s not a top-down.”

Overcoming Challenges

Esther Nelson, an ACT Program participant for four years, was addicted to painkillers before Highland Rivers. Fighting depression and thoughts of self-harm and suicide, Nelson said she was in a dark place.

“I was really angry at them to start with because I thought why would they take medicine away from me,” Nelson said on fighting addiction. “They just kept on with me until I got off them and I knew someone really cared about me.”

Nelson said she gets nervous during doctor’s visits, but said having someone by her side throughout helps put her at ease.

“(ACT team nurse) Mandy (Fox) is so good,” Nelson said. “A lot of people would just dump you out and do something else while you got your appointment. Mandy never leaves my side. She’s always there to make sure I understand everything the doctor is telling me.”

The ACT team was able to assist Nelson in getting her own apartment. She has been sober for three-and-a-half years, has reconnected with her children and has an 1-year-old emotional-support cat named Coco.

Nelson said she is aiming to take up painting, as she used to paint animals.

“I don’t know what would’ve happened to me if it hadn’t been for them. They’ve changed my life,” Nelson said. “Without them, I wouldn’t be sitting here ... right now. My life is so much better now.”

James Perkins has been a part of the ACT Program for three years. Perkins had been in prison, but upon his release found a place that he said cared for him.

Unger said he and two other Highland Rivers employees drove seven hours round trip to testify in court of Perkins’ behalf.

Perkins said he used to hear constant voices in his head, causing violent outbursts. With the ACT Program, Perkins said the voices are less frequent and the ACT team members have become more like brothers and sisters.

“I’ve come all the way from homelessness to success,” Perkins said. “They helped me get my (driver’s) license back, insurance on my car, ... social security card, ID. I’ve got an apartment and I live on my own.”

“James was in prison when we first started with him, and in three years, he’s had no interaction with law enforcement,” Morda said. “(He’s been) living on his own, driving, participating. He’s grown his recovery effort significantly.”

Perkins said he has been sober for six years. After his probation period ends, he plans on staying with Highland Rivers.

“They’re a great bunch of people,” Perkins said. “They stood by me the whole way.”

“It’s rewarding cause he’s really followed through,” Unger said.

Combating Stigmas

Unger said the stigmas surrounding mental health and bringing awareness to it differ throughout the U.S.

“How I deal with it is I just try to be an ambassador to the field of mental health and for the recovery aspect of mental health,” Unger said. “Recovery doesn’t mean everyone is going to be symptom free. It means that people are going to reach their full potential with the right type of help.”

Unger said the media plays a role in the equation. He added that while his team is smaller than desired, the job they do provides a community lifeline and safety net.

“They work on the weekends, they hold the phone 24/7, they get calls all night,” Unger said. “These are people who don’t have to do that, and yet, they do. They put a lot on their shoulders and they’re very, very dedicated, and those are the types of people, you have to be that way in order to do this kind of work.”

Amber Silvano Boyd, an ACT team participant for five years, said for those seeking help to search for treatment, but it could simply be a matter of being an understanding friend.

“Don’t go in the past, don’t go the future, but focus on today,” Boyd said.

Highland Rivers can be reached at 706-223-9023 during normal business hours. After hours can be reached at 678-988-0043. In case of a crisis situation, the Georgia Crisis and Access Line can be reached 24/7 at 1-800-715-4225. The National Suicide Hotline is 800-273-8255.

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