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New Baltimore wellness center works to reduce stigma of mental illness

New wellness center offers yoga, music and art therapy as part of mental health treatment for poor patients.

Patients who receive mental health counseling at the new Simon Life and Wellness Center in Baltimore lie on white leather sofas with faux suede and fur pillows. Abstract art in warm hues adorns the walls and colorful flowers pop against the modern white interior design.

It's not the typical decor for an urban mental health center, but the staff at Simon Life and Wellness in the Charles North neighborhood wants clients, many of them low-income, to see it as a cool and welcoming place.

Hip interior design is just one of the strategies owner Christopher A. Simon incorporated into the health and wellness center he opened on Howard Street in January. He hopes to diminish the stigma that's often attached to mental illness and draw more people from some of Baltimore's most troubled neighborhoods into much-needed treatment.

It also helps fill a gap in mental health services in the city, which suffers from a dearth of providers with the capacity to serve a population with significant needs.

Simon Life and Wellness also offers an art therapy room, music therapy and yoga classes. Adult clients can take healthy-cooking classes and children learn to make YouTube videos. There is a game room where kids can play foosball and board games.

The different activities create opportunities to address mental illness in ways that go beyond just talking, Simon said.

Clients can develop coping skills, but in a manner that feels more like going to a community center than to a doctor or mental health counselor. For example, yoga can teach people how to calm down when they're feeling anxious. The games give children chances to interact with people and develop problem-solving and social skills.

"A lot of our clients are told to suck it up every day," said Jada McCray, a licensed clinical social worker and executive director of the center's outpatient mental health clinic. "We are giving them the tools to deal with it."

Without such interventions, children can become numb to the gunfire and violence in their neighborhoods, she said. They learn not to complain about feeling hungry or about their parents not being able to afford new clothes or to pay the bills.

Research has shown that both children and adults who internalize such struggles are at increased risk of stress. And the build-up of stress can lead to mental health problems and illnesses such as heart disease down the road.

Mental health therapy increasingly is moving away from the traditional one-on-one counseling sessions between patients and therapists to a more holistic and community-based approach that also includes alternative treatments.

The idea is that mental health can't be addressed without looking at all parts of a person's life. The one-size-fits-all method of treatment is no longer the standard in mental health care, and many providers now believe a full recovery can't be achieved in the confines of an office.

"Serious mental illness can be very isolating, so reintegration and developing that social network is very important," said Crista Taylor, CEO of Behavioral Health System, which manages Baltimore's mental health programs. "That won't happen in a doctor's office."

Taylor said mental health centers are taking this approach in various ways. Some offer services all under one roof, while others may partner with different organizations.

Step by Step of Maryland, a behavioral health center in Park Heights, offers parenting classes, art therapy, yoga and Zumba, among other activities to complement traditional individual therapy. This spring the center will plant a garden, which owner Shajuan Forsey hopes will help calm patients.

"Once you leave the offices, what are you going to do when you're out in the community?" Forsey said. "We help prepare you for that."

A holistic approach is critical, Forsey added. "Without that you are not getting totally rehabilitated."

Simon, a licensed social worker who also owns therapy centers in Prince George's County and Frederick under the umbrella company BTST Services, brought his work to Baltimore because he believes there is a gap in treatment services in the city.

The gun violence, poverty and other social ills that afflict certain neighborhoods have left residents with mental health problems that are likely going untreated, he said.

Some substance abusers use drugs and alcohol to cope rather than address underlying mental illness. For some families, this lack of treatment has spanned generations, Simon said.

Simon also said too many people are using methadone and other legally prescribed drugs to get off illegal narcotics. While he sees a place for those drugs as short-term fixes, he prefers giving people the skills to deal with the problems that make them turn to illegal substances in the first place.

Simon declined to say how much money BTST Services invested in the space leased for the wellness center, which primarily serves people on Medicaid, the federal health insurance program for the poor, but also accepts private insurance.

Some of its poverty-stricken clients feel ostracized by society, he said. The clinics in their neighborhoods may not be as pristine and modern as some of the newer medical facilities.

"I want this to be someplace where they want to come back," Simon said. "I don't want it to be a place where they are uncomfortable and dread coming. In L.A., people brag about going to see their therapists. Therapy is not a bad thing."

The 50-member staff of counselors, therapists and nurses includes many who grew up in Baltimore and understand the clients and their lives.

McCray, the executive director, grew up at 38th and Greenmount in East Baltimore in a working-class family. Simon grew up along The Alameda in Northeast Baltimore.

Ashley Bangert, 32, said the amenities at the Simon center are 100 percent better than the last place she went to for therapy, which felt like an office.

She regularly brings her 15-year-old daughter, who suffers from anxiety, and her 11-year-old son, who has attention deficit disorder, to the center. In addition to talk therapy, her daughter is in a girls support group and her son takes a video class. Bangert said her kids like coming to the center and are getting the treatment they need.

"My kids are opening up more," Bangert said. "They are learning to better to interact with other people. It has helped my children a lot. I really feel good about this place."

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