Empowering the mentally ill


A lot of people think the mentally ill are crazy, Susan Kadis says.

She wants everyone to know they're not. Nor are they incompetent or incapable of participating in decisions affecting their lives, she says.

Ms. Kadis speaks from experience: without a careful balance of daily drugs, she'd be subject to mood shifts that can take her, for no apparent reason, to the depths of suicidal despair.

In spite of her illness, or perhaps because of it, she is herself an active member of several advisory boards for agencies that serve the mentally ill. She's also the project director of a three-year effort to teach other mentally ill citizens how to function on boards, commissions and task forces, how to testify at legislative sessions, and generally how to be effective in improving services to the mentally ill.

Known as LEAP -- the Leadership Empowerment Advocacy Program -- this program was originally proposed by Maryland's Mental Hygiene Administration and is jointly funded by the state and the National Institute of Mental Health, at an annual cost of $13,200.

"The end-point is to develop consumers of mental health services who can state their point of view," Ms. Kadis says. "If there are no consumers on the board of an agency, how can that agency have a realistic understanding of what needs have to be met? You're only guessing, but these folks can say, 'I've lived it. This works, but that doesn't.' "

To train such activist consumers, Ms. Kadis -- a special education teacher -- devised a 10-session curriculum that focuses on public speaking, consumer advocacy and leadership training, as well as teaching how government agencies work.

Ten people enrolled in the first set of classes, held in Baltimore and Annapolis. Another session is under way and Ms. Kadis is recruiting applicants for the third and final series.

Most of the nine people who completed the first session found positions, either paid or volunteer, before their final class, said Ms. Kadis.

Cary Stewart, for instance, has gone to work for Revisions, a Catonsville rehabilitation and housing project serving the mentally retarded as well as the mentally ill.

"It's a position from which to advocate," says Mr. Stewart, now in his fourth year of drug-maintained stability after 20 years of manic-depressive illness, "and a chance to share my experience in a positive way."

People interested in applying for the final series of classes can write or call Maryland Association of Psychosocial Services, 20 Winters Lane, Catonsville 21228. 788-1865.

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