Gateway Farm's one-day-at-a-time philosophy offers hope and independence 

Never Give Up

Heidi's got two new gold keys and she's so excited she can hardly stand it.

She whirls them around her finger like a lifeguard with a whistle — looking proud and official. Today, she's feeling both.

Heidi is a graduate of Gateway Farm, a private nonprofit home in rural Chesterfield County for adults with chronic mental illness, most often schizophrenia and bipolar disorder (widely known as manic-depression). Heidi (she and other residents in this story use their first names only upon request of Gateway administrators) has worked hard for these keys and after five years at Gateway, she knows the responsibility that comes with them. They are not just keys to her new apartment, they are keys to her independence — something that, with the help of Gateway's supported community-living program, she plans to keep.

Doors have opened for Heidi. Still, she strives daily to deal with the stress and anxiety brought on by her mental illness. Behind glasses her chestnut brown eyes wince when she speaks. Freckles and long brown hair worn in a ponytail give Heidi a prairie look, both sweet and tomboyish like Laura Ingalls. Sturdy yet gentle, she examines newcomers with a librarian's inspectful look.

Until her experience at Gateway, the idea of living independently seemed unlikely for the 24-year old who has struggled with schizoaffective disorder since she was in her early teens. Chances were she would spend her life in and out of psychiatric hospitals and adult homes, the kind of existence that has led many others to homelessness.

Among the estimated 64,000 Virginians affected by chronic mental illness, Heidi's story is a familiar one. But here in this place, set in the pastoral hills of Chesterfield County, the baffling and complex reality of mental-health care distills into a simple philosophy: Never give up. While other institutions deal with state investigations, sanctions, criticisms and inconsistencies, Gateway Farm — with a waiting list of 80 — pushes people to achieve their personal best, a best that with continued support can bring a more independent way of life.

Photo by Chad HuntBlake, a resident of Gateway Farm from Fairfax, has a five-year plan to get his own place, a driver's license and a car. He now feels he will be able to accomplish these things with Gateway's help.Early this month and again last week, mental health issues in Virginia again made headlines. Mental health advocates claim that the Department for the Rights of Virginians with Disabilities (DRVD), is ineffective and that a new mental health coalition may call for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to rescind more than half the DRVD's annual grant money. And just last week, Richmond's Charter Westbrook Behavioral Health System made front page news when a scathing report by the U.S. Health Care Financing Administration threatened to pull Medicare funding to the psychiatric hospital for more than two dozen cited deficiencies. The implication: Virginia's mental health system is not only at risk, it is failing.

According to Martha Mead, director of legislation and public relations with the state Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse Services, the negativity of the news is typical, and with this topic plagued by criticism, has come to be expected. "There has been an increased level of attention from the media because of the U.S. Justice Department's investigations," says Mead. "The General Assembly is going in the right direction but there are still challenges," she says, most importantly to improve the quality of clinical care given mental patients in both the private and public sector.

If a collective philosophy on mental health exists, it isn't simple. And it could be argued that some — both mental-health workers and legislators — have even given up.

But in the midst of this quagmire of politics and bureaucracy, at least one model exists that proves good mental-health care is worth the struggle. And that is Gateway Farm.

Here all 23 residents and four graduates, now living in the community, have followed circuitous and even torturous paths to reach Gateway Farm. Sometimes asked, often not, the residents share uncensored stories of haunting pasts and blurred realities.

Mark, 44, has a gentle handshake and a voice that sounds like "Saturday Night Live's" former weekend update man, Norm MacDonald. He holds degrees in mathematics and physics from Rice University. He has been at Gateway for more than two years. Mark had his first breakdown in Houston in 1977, a breakdown he describes now as the result of stress, competition and eventual paranoia. "I felt slow and spaced-out, and I didn't know how to process reality. Then I couldn't sleep, I was thinking 100 miles an hour. I went to see a priest and he told me to go see a psychiatrist," he remembers. "Depression is hell. You can't learn anything when you're depressed." When the paranoia kicked in, he often heard voices and thought someone was plotting to murder him. He lived in a state of constant fear and self-doubt. Today those voices in Mark's head have disappeared. A graduate to Gateway's Moore House apartments, Mark is now at peace — he is happy. It has taken more than 22 years.

Photo by Chad HuntA graduate to the third level in Gateway's program — the supported-community living phase — Heidi proves to herself and others that despite the day-to-day struggles of her mental illness, she can live happily and independently in her own apartment.Tina is 27. Her fresh haircut shows off her placid green eyes. Tina was diagnosed with schizophrenia when she was 15. After a year spent at Central State Hospital in Petersburg, she was in and out of public and private mental hospitals for the next six years. Tina did not celebrate her sweet 16, she did not go to a senior prom. Instead, between the ages of 16-18, there were periods of blackouts, associations with gangs and sporadic crack use. Tina says she tried to fight the social system she felt was bringing her down. Usually quite lucid, there are moments when Tina's mind — like each resident's — weaves random perceptions into patchwork reality. "The beds are soft here and comfortable to sleep in," Tina confides in the middle of a conversation. "I think I have a special power from God to free people."

Cathy, 29, is a natural athlete. It shows during morning relays and games of dodge ball. She used to hurt herself. Scars line her arms. She jumped off a bridge once because she wanted to die. Back then Cathy's brain told her she was ugly — and she believed it. She had no self-worth. Cathy sought relief in drugs. Today, Cathy's scars are only visible on the outside. And these too seem daily to diminish as she becomes more self-assured. Cathy is quick to crack a joke and often leads the group in laughter. She's been at Gateway nearly four months. "The good thing about being here is that street people can't get you," she says.

Like Mark, Tina and Cathy, each resident claims a testimony to the pains of mental illness. But after coming to Gateway Farm, their testimonies become more about recovery and the skills that help them lead a happy life.

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