Visalia opens door to Wellness
Tulare County Mental Health holds grand opening for Visalia Wellness Center to help those who have received treatment to reintegrate into the community
By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
VISALIA – Just 23 years old, Martiza Suarez has already had a lifetime of experience. She suffered from deep depression as a teenager struggling to cope with feelings of hopelessness, loneliness and the stigma that she was broken beyond repair. As a young adult she sought treatment through Tulare County’s Mental Health Division. For the last two years she’s been working for Kings View Behavioral Health Systems at the Porterville Wellness Center operating a job resource center for members attending there. And last Friday, she began work as a peer support specialist, helping others who were in her situation just a few years ago.
Suarez is one of three peer support specialists whose job is to work with members at the newly opened Visalia Wellness Center, an outpatient facility where individuals who no longer need intensive services visit to refine life skills alongside others as the last step in their recovery from mental health diagnoses. Wellness and recovery centers like the Visalia facility focus on teaching skills through cooking classes, budgeting, computer classes, and vocational training that are supervised and structured to help individuals successfully reintegrate into their community.
“I never saw myself working to help others,” Suarez said. “I was in crisis and needed help. With the support of therapists and groups I got the confidence and self-esteem I needed.”
Kuyler Crocker, chairman of the Tulare County Board of Supervisors, was among a few people who spoke at the Aug. 21 grand opening of the Visalia Wellness Center, located at 1223 S. Lovers Lane. Crocker said the facility did not receive a warm reception when it was first announced but he knows it will be a tool to breaking down the stigma of mental health.
“If someone has cancer, it’s not considered a bad thing to seek chemotherapy treatment,” Crocker said. “So why is it bad to seek treatment for mental health?”
Crocker noted that the center got off to an uneasy start in Visalia. The 5,600-square foot facility was cast by neighboring residents as a treatment clinic, methadone clinic, medication service provider and even a residential program, where those with mental health issues are locked in. In reality, Mental Health Services for Tulare County said the facility is drug and alcohol free and would serve individuals who are near the end of their “wellness and recovery journey” and not those recently diagnosed or receiving “intensive services.” The center will not treat addicts and sex offenders, which are treated in completely different programs, such as the criminal justice system.
About 50 community members attended two community listening sessions in February 2017, most of whom were not in favor of the facility. Some of the issues raised were mental health patients sharing a bus stop with children on Lovers Lane, unstable mental health patients being treated near homes, and an increase in the number of homeless people.
Similar to its sister facility in Porterville, which opened in May 2017, the Visalia Wellness Center will provide ongoing counseling and classes to those who have already undergone treatment for severe mental illness and severe emotional disturbance and are now transitioning into their next phase of life.
Colleen Overholt, LMFT and executive director of Behavior Health for Kings View, said Kings View’s individualized program has worked well in Porterville. Overholt noted that the wellness centers focus on keeping members well not getting them well. She said those who attend the facilities are at the end of their mental health journeys and come to the centers to find community, learn skills to be independent, and just to have a place where people understand what they are going through, all without dealing with the stigma of mental health.
“I’m honored we have been entrusted with another wellness center in Tulare County,” Overholt said.
Kings View CEO Amanda Nugent Divine, a licensed marriage and family therapist, described mental health as a spectrum and that we slide along the scale depending on how we are feeling that time of day, day of the week, or time of the month.
“Lots of things cause mental health, but not one of them is human weakness,” Divine said. “It’s something people don’t control and don’t ask for but it is something that can get better.”
Divine said each Kings View’s five wellness centers are unique because they try to adapt to the members who attend the center. She said the one constant between the facilities is that every successful program is founded on building positive relationships and connections. In addition to life skills, members at the Visalia Wellness Center will learn stress reduction techniques, depression and anxiety management, have access to peer and family support groups as well as access to community resources. Groups are kept to no more than 30 people at a time.
“Relationships are the cornerstone of mental health,” she said. “Building relationships is a skill and we have to learn that skill.”
Luz Bedolla, activities coordinator at the Visalia Wellness Center, said members will have access to a variety of activities to help them learn coping skills. Board games, video games, sports, and lawn games provide members the opportunity to work in teams or in competitive environments. A garden under the gazebo and a demonstration kitchen indoors help members learn the importance of healthy eating and how to grow and make their own meals to avoid the financial and nutritional cost of over eating out.
Bedolla spent the last two years working as a vocational coordinator at Kings View’s wellness center in Fresno. She said the lessons learned in the computer labs were often life changing for older residents who were unable to communicate regularly with family members because they did not live nearby. She told the story about a member of the Fresno center who was in his mid-50s and had never learned to turn on a computer. Bedolla said she took the man through the process step-by-step starting with where to turn a computer on to doing Internet searches and using email.
“He is now editing our newsletter, and doing all of the photography, design and writing,” Bedolla said. “It took him a year and a half to get there but now he can communicate through email with his sister every day.”
The wellness center officially opened to members on Friday, Aug. 23. Hours will be 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. For more information on Tulare County’s Wellness Centers, visit the Facebook page for the Porterville Wellness Center where you can find calendars of events, and other items about the culture of a wellness center.
The Visalia Wellness Center is funded through the Mental Health Services Act (MHSA). Approved by California voters in 2004, MHSA provides funding for mental health wellness and recovery programs based on five essential principles: Consumer and family driven services; focus on wellness, recovery, and resiliency; community collaboration; cultural competency; and integrated service experience. Tim Lutz, director of Tulare County Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA), said the needs for mental health in the area are great and complex.
“Our goal is to help put them on a path to self-sufficiency and independence,” Lutz said.