Local woman’s mental health advocacy is rooted in her family experience
“You can’t really understand some things until you feel it,” said Lisa Currier, vocalizing a sentiment often expressed by those whose loved ones suffer from severe mental illness.
Currier’s experience began almost a decade ago, when a family member she described as “a kind, really smart, an all-around great kid,” who volunteered with children and could do advanced math equations on the spot, began growing more isolated and argumentative. Currier initially chalked up the young person’s personality changes to “typical teenage stuff,” until a suicide attempt led to a long hospitalization and, eventually, a diagnosis of schizophrenia.
In the years since, her family member has been through big ups and downs: periods of stability complicated by sporadic crises—including violent confrontations—that have lead to incarceration and institutionalization. While in jail, Currier’s family member spent several months under suicide watch, dressed in an “anti-suicide” smock, deprived of proper psychiatric care and allowed minimal visits or perks.
Since the onset of her loved ones’s illness, Currier has spent countless hours navigating what’s best described as “the system”—a figurative web of government and nongovernment agencies convoluted with endless paperwork and bureaucracy. Along the way, she’s seen how mental health issues intersect with multitudinous social problems, including criminal justice, homelessness, access to heath care and addiction.
This personal struggle inspired Currier to help others in need, and for the last several years she’s volunteered with the Shalom Free Clinic, Chico Housing Action Team and the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Since the beginning of this year, she’s been working on establishing her own service organization, Crisis Care Triage and Advocacy (CCTA), dedicated to helping others navigate the system.
Currier’s partner in the project is Valerie Sanz, a social worker and therapist. The pair met while working at the Shalom Free Clinic’s now-defunct thrift store/outreach center on First Street, where they interacted daily with some of Chico’s most destitute and severely afflicted citizens—exactly the people CCTA aims to serve.
“They’re my people, and I love them and want to help them,” Currier said. “Beyond the experiences with my own family member, I’ve seen the torment that so many others have to go through.”
CCTA’s goal is to become a complete “mobile triage” unit that can travel to people experiencing a mental health crisis at any time, assess their situation and needs, and follow up to help them connect with existing services. Sanz helped develop a similar, county-funded program in Napa two years ago that’s still operating today.
“Our goal is to intervene and get people the help they need before a critical situation like incarceration, 5150 or a trip to the emergency room,” Sanz said. “Sometimes those things still happen, in which case we would be there afterward to make sure they get whatever they need to get them back to baseline functioning.”
“A lot of it is relationship management 101,” Currier said, noting that people in the midst of a mental health crisis may not know or be able to express their immediate needs, and identifying those needs is just the beginning of a difficult process. “Sometimes, what clients and their families need most is help dealing with all of the agencies that are meant to help them.
“It’s about knowing who to call, what information people need to move forward, and making sure the client is able to follow through—with appointments, getting their medication every day, whatever the case might be.”
Currier and Sanz have assembled a group of about a half-dozen people—including a pharmacist, a street pastor, social work students and homeless advocates—to carry out their mission.
The CCTA team is already working with a handful of clients, and Currier offered examples of real-world scenarios where their efforts have had positive results: They’ve helped expedite the transfer of records for people to receive care; found clients on the street after loved ones reported them missing; arranged transport for people to get cellphones, ID cards, clothing and shelter; and helped set up appointments. The group doesn’t charge for services, Currier said.
Currently, Currier and her colleagues are in charge of crisis management at the Safe Space Winter Shelter. Currier is exploring funding to hire a staff of social workers and taking steps for the group to become a nonprofit; in the meantime, they are working in conjunction with the North Valley Community Foundation.
CCTA is also focusing on public education and fighting the stigma of mental illness. To that end, the group held a town hall meeting on mental health issues in the spring, and hosted a presentation with advocate Elyn Saks via Skype last month.
Currier and Sanz said CCTA already has developed relationships with a handful of agencies and is reaching out to more.
“We want to work in conjunction and collaboration with other agencies, not to step on anyone’s toes,” Sanz said. “There’s plenty of mental illness to go around. We want to be another link in the chain.”