The way to wellness
Hope is the operative word at the Iversen Wellness and Recovery Center
The guitar at the Iversen Wellness and Recovery Center and Med Clinic rarely remains slung in its wall-mounted saddle for very long. By 10:30 a.m. on a recent Thursday morning, it had already changed hands several times before landing in the arms of a young man in a hooded sweatshirt who, for the next half-hour, alternately strummed and tapped the soundboard as he strolled about the bustling building on Rio Lindo Avenue, providing a pulse-like rhythm to drive the energy coursing through the room.
It was warm inside the center, in more ways than one. Newly arrived regular attendees—known as “members” of this very unique community, all of whom have experienced mental health challenges—exchanged handshakes and “How-do-ya-dos?”
After signing in with volunteer staff members, most made a beeline to the kitchen for a hot cup of coffee before settling into the heart of the center, a living-room-like space appointed with comfortable couches and chairs.
There, amid laughter and conversation ringing from every corner, Andrea Wagner and Davy Andrek brainstormed screenplay ideas for the center’s next Diverse Minds event, a showcase of members’ artistic works aimed at celebrating mental diversity and combating stigma against mental illness. They stopped spit-balling to greet Jack Chaney, an elder member wearing sunglasses and a ball cap proudly proclaiming his status as a military veteran.
“Every day is a good day; it’s what ya make of it … I’m just glad I’m not on a damned airplane,” Chaney said. Several people laughed at the nonsequitur—a staple of his characteristic comedic stylings—and more laughter erupted as he followed up with, “I don’t like staring down the barrels of machine guns.”
Chaney took a seat and continued to roll out one-liners as a beaming, curly haired woman named Judy looked on, loosing frequent, vociferous giggles. Silver-haired Sue Waterreus momentarily set aside her knitting to add a few riddles and punny jokes to the mix.
“I just love words—sometimes they can be funny and other times they can be very powerful,” said Waterreus, smiling sweetly. “Our main word here is ‘hope.’”
Indeed, hope tops the list of guiding principles—collectively known as the Five Key Concepts of Wellness and Recovery—upon which the Iversen Center is based. The center—which is run by Northern Valley Catholic Social Service (NVCSS), with support from the Butte County Behavioral Health Department—offers group activities, social opportunities, organized outings and support for individuals experiencing mental illness.
The Iversen Center stands as a shining example of shifting paradigms regarding how mental health conditions like depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and addiction are treated. With the exception of the Med Clinic (which is operated solely by Behavioral Health and provides psychiatric care for that agency’s clients on select days), all of the services are free and open to anyone over the age of 18. Though many members come by way of referral from Behavioral Health, no “doctor’s note,” or even an official diagnosis, is required to attend. The center is open to all, but to fully avail of its services, clients must become members. That process is low-barrier, requiring only that newcomers attend an orientation meeting and agree to a simple code of conduct based on mutual respect and safety.
Jason Tate, the center’s director, explained that the wellness and recovery model embraced at Iversen is focused on peer support and taps into the wealth of knowledge gathered by those who’ve experienced mental illness. It’s an alternative to what’s known as the traditional “medical model” of mental health care, where treatment is dictated by presumed experts (doctors, therapists) and is focused largely on medication. The wellness model is more holistic, he said, accounting for the mental, spiritual, physical, social and other needs of each individual.
“For a long time, people who were living with mental illness were told, ‘This is a chronic condition that’s only going to get worse over your lifetime, so you need to take these pills, follow this prescripted expert advice and lower your expectations regarding what sort of quality of life or experiences you can have.’” he said. “The basic idea was, ‘You’re not going to get any better, so let’s try to mask the symptoms.’
Tate said medical treatment is still an important piece of the puzzle, but that “the wellness model says mental health ‘consumers,’ or patients, have valuable insight and should be able to have some say in their treatment. People can learn to live with their symptoms, hang on to hope that recovery is possible, and succeed in society.
“Success means something different for every individual … for some people, it may mean being a CEO, and for others it might just mean getting out of bed every morning.”
Six days a week (the center is closed Sundays), the building is filled with dozens of people at various points along their personal paths to wellness. The CN&R spent several days at the center last month speaking to staff, volunteers and members about their experiences with mental illness, their struggles, and their successes. Here are just a few of their stories.
A dangerous gift
Tate’s own life has been profoundly impacted by mental illness. His father, who he described as “brilliant, accomplished and talented,” was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and ultimately took his own life when Tate was just 3 years old.
His father’s illness, as well as experiences with other loved ones who’ve struggled with mental health challenges, provided the impetus for Tate’s involvement in the mental wellness field. He previously worked with family- and youth-oriented programs for NVCSS and Youth for Change, started at the Iversen Center in 2011 as a case manager, and became program manager there in 2015.
For much of its existence, the center functioned as a drop-in facility, offering varying levels of support and services over the years. It was founded by Behavioral Health in 2009 with funding from the Mental Health Services Act. Approved by California voters in 2004, the MHSA, or Proposition 63, established a tax of 1 percent on private incomes exceeding $1 million annually, with funds earmarked for community-based mental health services. MHSA funding remains integral to the center’s ongoing operation, Tate said.
Activity has incrementally increased since NVCSS assumed oversight of the center in 2013. That’s due in part to Tate’s tireless efforts, though he’s quick to credit the success to its members. He noted the center is largely governed by an advisory board made up of seven elected members from the center’s community, and that most of the activity and support groups—the core of the Iversen Center’s services—are likewise determined by members.
“Over half of our groups are run by members that we train and support to run them. Every group is grassroots … like, if someone says they wish we had an anxiety support group, we say, ‘Great, why don’t you run one?’”
Tate’s early and ongoing experiences with mental health have helped him develop a unique view of those with mental disorders: that they are the recipients of a “dangerous gift.”
“Many people find some aspects of their mental illness give them insights that allow them to see a different part of the human experience than people who don’t have those symptoms,” he said. “It can be beautiful, but of course it’s dangerous. Suicide and self-harm are huge risks for people with mental health issues, and there’s dangers to livelihood and difficulties engaging with culture and society.
“The wellness model says that’s all true, but there’s also some insight, beauty, grace and creativity that comes from this.”
To foster those positive aspects, the center offers arts-oriented groups of all kinds—music, writing, sewing and arts and crafts—alongside more traditional therapy and support groups. The center also organizes regular public events, like an annual Wellness and Recovery Fair and Diverse Minds showcases.
For those who doubt the positive contributions of those with mental illness, Tate sometimes presents a challenge: “Name a great artist who hasn’t been affected by mental illness.”
Building community, sharing stories
Andrea Wagner works as an outreach coordinator and peer assistant for NVCSS and a behavioral health counselor for Butte County. She’s also facilitated the Iversen Center’s weekly writing group and served as editor of three published collections of writing and art created by that community. She is well-versed in the effects of mental illness, having herself endured a difficult journey.
“I didn’t find working with people with mental health as a cause, it found me,” she said. “It’s who I am, and I feel for people who’ve gone through it because I’ve gone through it.”
Wagner said she struggled with depression that led to hospitalization at the county’s Psychiatric Health Facility (PHF, or “Puff Unit,” as it’s colloquially known) in 2005. Still, she got off medication, worked as an intern at the CN&R, graduated from Chico State, became a reporter at the Red Bluff Daily News, and moved to New York with her two children for another journalism job before tragedy triggered another episode.
“My oldest son got sick; he had brain cancer and passed away,” she said. “We moved back to Chico because this is where he wanted to spend his last days, and his passing sent me into a downward spiral.”
During that time, Wagner said that—like many of the center’s other members—she experienced homelessness, and lived for several months at the Torres Community Shelter.
Wagner was introduced to the Iversen Center through her treatment at Behavioral Health, and started organizing the first edition of the Iversen Journal in 2015. She said she was inspired to do so by a poetry book put out by clients of a wellness center she visited in New York, and expanded on the concept to include both writing and artwork created by members.
Another journal followed in 2016. The most recent publication—in keeping with a Diverse Minds Film Festival spearheaded by Tate last year—is titled the Diverse Minds North State Journal, and includes contributions from other wellness centers and mental health facilities throughout the region.
Each publication is accompanied by a release party, and Wagner said the number of contributions and size of the gatherings has increased exponentially year-by-year. Previous events have featured visual artworks projected on a large screen, readings by contributors and live music by Iversen Center musicians including The Symptomatics, a band born from the center’s weekly music group.
Wagner recently started soliciting contributions for the next installment and reached out to the Museum of Northern California Art, which will host a Diverse Minds Art Show and Journal Release event during the first week of November. Wagner and other Iversen staff and members are anticipating it will be their biggest event yet.
As for the goals of the Diverse Minds initiatives, Wagner said, “We want to reduce stigma by showing that people with mental health challenges can still create beautiful, amazing and awe-inspiring things, and that we’re not limited by our challenges.”
Wagner said the events—the last of which was attended by contributors from as far away as Humboldt County and Yreka—also help build a sense of community, noting that isolation can exacerbate, or even cause, mental turmoil, a situation she sees often.
“It also gives the people who submit so much self-esteem and validation. During those parties, when people get up and read their poems and stories, talk about their art … it gives me chills. It’s therapy, and it’s community.”
The Iversen Center’s seven-member board meets every Monday morning, and discussions at a recent gathering included planning events: a March outing to the bowling alley, a members-only Valentine’s Day celebration, and the center’s first-ever family night. For the latter, the board decided to temporarily lift the center’s 18-and-up policy to allow members’ children to visit.
Presiding over the meeting was Robert Carver, a polite and soft-spoken man who was elected to his position of chairman of the advisory board last year.
After adjourning the board meeting, then attending a lively members’ meeting and social with about 40 attendees in the Iversen Center’s main room—a regular Monday event—Carver took a moment to discuss his own journey toward wellness.
Carver said he’s been affected by depression, schizoaffective disorder and learning disabilities for most of his life; he also has post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from childhood abuse. He said his condition worsened and he started having suicidal thoughts following the deaths of several family members.
He first started visiting the Iversen Center five years ago, but—like many people who eventually become active members—it took him several months to start attending groups and become more involved. “I came because I needed guidance as I was working on my recovery,” he said. “I’m still working on it, but that’s when I started reaching out.”
He said he initially found some solace in the center’s grief and loss and WRAP (Wellness and Recovery Action Plan) groups, then started attending others. He eventually completed an eight-week facilitator’s training and now runs two groups himself—weekly meetings for stress awareness every Tuesday, and a men’s group on Fridays. His experiences have also helped him branch out in other directions; though he’s never been homeless, he said he’s very concerned about the plight of those who are, and that he regularly volunteers at Vectors, a local program that provides transitional housing for veterans.
“I have a big heart,” Carver said. The trait was evident in speaking with him. In fact, he was the first to submit a piece for the next Diverse Minds journal, appropriately titled “My Big Heart.”
“I enjoy coming here,” he said. “The staff and other members have really helped me through my trials and tribulations, and they’ve been there for the good things, too. I think it’s a wonderful place, and I don’t know where I’d be without it.”
In the animated music video for the song “I Found a Hope,” a fuzzy-faced character dressed in a red plaid kilt and matching cap is pictured dancing in front of beautifully rendered representations of Chico landmarks like the Senator Theatre and downtown’s City Plaza. The character, Sir Scotty McRockstar, is sometimes accompanied by a gaggle of dancing spirits resembling blue teardrops.
“He’s a Scottish caveman musician struggling to be an artist, and he was knighted by the moonlight in a dream,” said Davy Andrek, who writes, performs, records music for and animates a whole series of McRockstar videos. “He wants to sing about his love of the moonlight, but he’s got these little blue ghosties who kinda harass him … but Scotty realizes that when he sings and plays his music, the ghosties dance.
“He finds that his challenges help him grow when he’s productive,” Andrek continued. “The ghosties actually make him a better person.”
Andrek’s character sketch and another detail he shared—that McRockstar is “an advocate for strength through mental diversity”—prompted the question: Is the character a representation of Andrek himself?
“Yeah, a bit … my heritage is Scottish and I’ve faced some challenges. When I was a kid I had a really hard time with life, and ended up in the hospital when I was 19,” said Andrek, who is now 41. “I’ve had to learn to quiet my mind and treat myself better, and I’ve found that being creative and having an artistic outlet really helps.
“And this place, it also helps,” he said of the Iversen Center. “If I spend too much time by myself, I’m in my head too much, and that can be bad. So I come here to socialize and there’s a lot of support.”
The Renaissance man
When describing John McMackin, Iversen Center members often use the term “master artist,” a title of which the sprightly septuagenarian is unquestionably deserving.
“I’m getting old,” he said on a quieter than usual recent afternoon at the center, a sketchbook resting in his lap and a smile on his face. “But I’m young in thought and I don’t like doing nothing, so I’m way too engaged in way too many things.”
In addition to visiting the center most days (he rides his bike from his home on Chico’s south side), McMackin is also involved in Toastmasters as well as several senior citizen and church groups; he serves as a Boy Scout leader and commissioner; works as a caregiver for In Home Supportive Services; and is an artist-in-residence at Enloe Medical Center’s Infusion Therapy Clinic, where he draws sketches for patients as they receive treatment. He also has seven grandchildren and can regularly be found doing one-line drawings at local events. He completes these intricate works in a matter of minutes without raising pen from paper, and estimates he’s done at least 25,000 of them in the last 40 years, giving the vast majority away for free.
At the Iversen Center, McMackin has overseen a number of large-scale group art projects, each of which took several months to complete. One of these cooperative pieces hangs on the most prominent wall there and graces the cover of the 2016 Iversen Journal. He said collaborating with other center members is not much different from what he’s experienced working alongside professional artists during his long career.
“I don’t think of what people’s issues are … I just keep them on track, keep them peaceful and related to each other,” he said. “When you care about the work, you move beyond and you move through, you’re able to extend creatively because you’re fully engaged in the thought and the process. You experience the joy of what’s happening.”
McMackin is also a lifelong game enthusiast who said he started water-coloring $500 Monopoly bills before the age of 10. He is currently developing Iversen Center Monopoly, an experiential game in which one earns game dollars by completing tasks at the center, like attending particular groups or serving coffee or food.
As for his challenges, McMackin said: “My main issue was the loss of my wife in 2002. I got stuck in grief, and wasn’t able to function with the sorrow and despair I felt about her loss. I had to get through a period of not wanting to survive or be where I was.
“I eventually became able to deal with some of that and commit myself to living once again,” he said. “It’s still difficult at times, but coming here helps a great deal.
“There are a lot of amazing people in this place; we have fantastic image artists, cratftsmen, makers and sewers of all kinds,” he said. “Since I became aware of this community, I have been amused and amazed constantly by the people who come here.”
In the course of the week, the CN&R heard dozens more personal accounts of tragedy and triumph from the center’s members. Nearly all said that the Iversen Center—and the wellness and recovery model—have contributed to significant positive changes in their lives.
“We want to bring honor and joy to people who’ve been through a lot … through tough life experiences, through trauma, setbacks, and the difficulties that come along with diagnosis and treatment,” Wagner said. “We strive to create a place where people are accepted for who they are and what they can accomplish, for their thoughts and creativity and tremendous contributions.