In 1969, Saint Paul minister Harry Maghakian noticed that a residence next to his church was sheltering homeless men. After spending time with these neighbors, many of whom were veterans of World War II and Korea, the reverend believed it was clear many of them were masking symptoms of mental illness with alcohol and drugs.
Maghakian’s congregation began to offer these men a place in their church to come for coffee and snacks. Soon the outreach expanded to holiday meals and other special occasions.
At the time, there were few organizations in the Twin Cities serving people with mental illness, so Maghakian’s church joined with five other congregations to form an organization that removed religious affiliation and became known as People Incorporated.
Today, People Incorporated serves over 10,000 clients annually with more than 60 programs throughout the Twin Cities, including treatment services, crisis residences and in-home health services.
After hearing this story, I realized these numbers suggested that mental illness was rising in our community and wondered why I hadn’t been hearing any dialogue on the topic. I called People Incorporated and they were gracious enough to set me up with an interview at the Maghakian Place facility in Saint Paul.
Communications director Bill Gray and clinical supervisor/treatment director Anne Boone spoke in a sun-soaked office overlooking a pleasant residential neighborhood.
“You’ve come to the right place to find answers,” says Gray. “Maghakian Place is the first M.I.C.D (Mental Illness Chemical Dependency) facility in the state, and our mental health provider is the largest in the Upper Midwest.”
“Maybe it’s just my own faulty perception, but it seems to me that people are still afraid to discuss mental illness,” I reply. “Is this topic still taboo?”
“The stigma around mental illness is high. Sometimes people don’t seek treatment because they’re afraid of what others will think, or maybe they’ll lose their job,” says Gray. “It’s intimidating facing an illness that has no gene marker.”
“It can be confusing for clients who come here because they’re battling numerous issues. Many of the people we work with suffer from both mental illness and chemical dependency,” says Boone. “Like Bill said, there is no genetic marker, so sometimes it’s like the chicken and the egg. You don’t know which illness is triggering the other.”
I ask Gray if people can tell when they are mentally ill.
“Most people won’t realize it—not at first, anyway. Mental illness usually manifests slowly in peoples’ lives,” he says. “There are instances where a singular traumatic event will expedite this, but more often than not, people will suffer depression or anxiety, and it’s not unusual that they will try to avoid this by self-medicating.”
“Our hope is that people will learn to remove shame from mental illness,” Gray continues. “After all, I think one out of five people will experience mental illness in their lifetime.”
Boone agrees. “Shame is toxic. It holds people back by creating panic. We see it all the time. The media certainly doesn’t help this, either. The perception that mentally ill people are violent has been blown out of proportion. Mentally ill people are more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than the person committing one.”
Maghakian Place has a 16-bed program; the average stay is 60 to 75 days, and 90 is the maximum. “Oftentimes these are people who’ve burned bridges in their past so when they come here, we realize that their resources may be limited,” Gray explains. “Obviously, each set of needs will be different. That’s why we ask the client what their focus needs to be.”
“Are residents allowed to come back if things don’t work out for them?” I ask, wondering about the success rate.
“Absolutely, I don’t think it’s realistic to think you can give a group of people tools and expect everybody to utilize them equally with effectiveness. We see relapse here often, and if I’ve learned one thing over the years, it’s that shaming people never works,” says Gray. “I’m convinced the best strategy is to try to identify the root cause, and then hang in there with the client.”
I ask Boone if there are any other contributing factors that have confused the general public about mental illness.
“Everybody has their own state of mental health, but it isn’t something that remains in a constant state. Mental health is a continuum that has the ability to fluctuate. That’s why if someone has the slightest suspicion that something’s off, going to a general practitioner is a good place to start,” she explains. “Think of it in these terms: If you thought that you broke your arm, how ridiculous would it be for you to ignore it, or worse yet, try to fix it yourself?”
Following our conversation, I became overwhelmed considering how fortunate Saint Paul, and the Twin Cities, is to have an organization such as People Incorporated. It’s a place where mental health can be discussed, and treated, without shame.
Facts on Mental Illness in America Today
- In a given year, approximately one in 25 U.S. adults experiences a serious mental illness that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.
- 2.6 percent of U.S. adults live with bipolar disorder.
- 6.9 percent of U.S. adults had at least one major depressive episode in the past year.
- Among the 20.2 million U.S. adults who experienced a substance use disorder, 50.5 percent have a co-occurring mental illness. Source: nami.org
Visit Maghakian Place
Changing Minds tours are offered at People Incorporated. Visitors can see the facilities and meet staff members; participants are asked to sign a confidentiality agreement to protect clients’privacy.
To find out more about mental illness, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness website.
Danny Klecko is a Saint Paul writer and the CEO of St. Agnes Baking Co.