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Working with persistently mentally ill people has many challenges, but is also extremely rewarding. Asimina Kremos, MA, MSW, a residential supervisor at West Bergen Mental Healthcare, shares her experience with assisting her residential clients in managing their ongoing mental health conditions.

My name is Mina and I’m proud to tell you about my work and the work of my fellow team members in the Residential Program at West Bergen Mental Healthcare. I have been a part of the West Bergen family for 8 years. My career began as a counselor in the Residential Program in West Bergen’s Summer House group home. After earning my Master’s degree, I went on to become an assistant supervisor at Summer House and now work as a clinical supervisor for two of our other 24 hour supervised, community based group homes. The individuals we care for are adults struggling with persistent mental illness such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. During my tenure at West Bergen, I have come to know them as family; to care for them and to learn their personal stories. People sometimes ask why I choose to do this difficult work. My answer is that I do it because I love it. I can safely say all the staff I work with truly believe that what we do in the Residential Department at West Bergen is incredibly important and meaningful in the lives of the people we serve.   

 1 in 25 adults suffer with chronic mental illness

Let me tell you about our clients. They have spent years institutionalized, often dismissed as being “crazy.”  For a long time, people thought clients like ours were dangerous and unfit to live outside of hospital walls. There was a mistaken belief that people with persistent mental illness couldn’t respond to treatment and were somehow different from the rest of us.  We now know these “beliefs” to be untrue. According to NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), 1 out of 4 individuals in the US suffer with mental illness, and approximately 1 out of 25 adults suffer with chronic mental illness such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.  Our clients did not choose this life and they did not choose to hear voices or see things that aren’t there. They did not choose to have delusions; nor did they expect to lose the independent capacity to undertake what most of us consider basic tasks of everyday living. It just happened. It was the tragic outcome of symptoms related to their illness – symptoms we now know are treatable with appropriate intervention.

 Primary support system

Many of our residents do not have family involvement. Some are estranged from loved ones or misunderstood by family. Therefore, the staff in the Residential Program, are their family. For those who do have family involvement, we become allies and fellow caregivers. 

Our residents are people, individuals who benefit greatly from our supervision and care. We assist them in all aspects of living including helping them with basic skills, such as meal planning and cooking.  We support them in understanding and obtaining essential benefits like social security and disability. We accompany them to medical appointments, which is critical, especially as they age. We understand their anxiety and provide comfort to them when they are diagnosed with serious medical issues or have to go through surgeries or other intrusive medical intervention. We educate them with patience and compassion on what these health issues mean for them. These situations can be extremely challenging for some clients, as their delusions often interfere with their ability to understand or accept their medical needs. 

As their primary support system, we help them establish structure and give them encouragement to live a better life.  Some days are harder for them.  We are aware of their difficulties and feel their pain. Sometimes when clients are struggling, they may need a distraction such as talking about weekend plans or listening to music. Sometimes they need someone to reassure and calm them when the voices they hear inside their head are particularly mean and intrusive.  We offer support and try to help them understand what is real and what is not. Our hope is that they know, no matter what, they can count on us.

 A strong, dedicated team

The residential staff at West Bergen is a collaborative team. Our shared goal is to provide our clients with our best efforts every day.  We strive to help them achieve the life they deserve, not the life they inherited as a result of an illness they do not control.  We care deeply for them, which is why many of us have been dedicated to this important work for years. Our work has many challenges, especially as our clients’ medical needs change. And we are heartbroken when we experience the loss of a client. The smiles though, the conversations, the moments we proudly celebrate their accomplishments… those are the sparks that ignite our passion for this meaningful, rewarding work. 

This job, this life my colleagues and I share with these remarkable people, leaves us feeling incredibly grateful and honored to be the ones who can make a significant difference for those we care for. I am fortunate to work for an organization that continually practices its values and promotes compassion for this underserved population. It’s hard work and takes dedication, but what we do is truly invaluable, and incredibly rewarding.

 

 West Bergen’s Residential Program provides a variety of supervised residential group homes and scatter site apartments for individuals, 18 years or older, who are recovering from mental health issues which required psychiatric hospitalization. Referrals for admission to the Residential Program comes primarily from in-patient, psychiatric hospitals.