Jack Attaway has struggled as far back as he can remember. He began showing symptoms of mental illness as an adolescent. By the time he was a young adult, he had been arrested many times and resisted the idea that mental illness could be a contributing factor.
However, with proper medical evaluation and treatment, he discovered a whole new way of managing his life with schizophrenia, a mental illness characterized by disturbances in thought, perception and behavior.
Jack has been treated at several hospitals in San Diego. He was in the outpatient program at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital for several years before transferring his care to Sharp Grossmont Hospital. Previously, he had required frequent hospitalizations, and even treatment in long-term care settings.
“When I first met Jack, he could barely lift his head up and would mumble his words,” says Michelle Wenzler, LCSW, a therapist for the outpatient program at Sharp Grossmont. “It just felt like this was a person that was very low functioning and wasn’t really going to be able to do much.”
Part of Jack’s treatment included electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). ECT is an FDA-approved medical treatment used for a variety of mental health issues that have not improved with medications.
“We provided Jack many of the standard treatments offered to people with similar struggles and also treatments that are reserved for more difficult to treat illnesses,” explains Dr. Brian Miller, a psychiatrist affiliated with Sharp Grossmont. “There was an extended period of time in which he required ECT to control his symptoms.”
Changes needed to be made
As Jack was still at the point of being repeatedly admitted as an inpatient with the current treatment and having a difficult time managing his symptoms, he and his care team realized that he needed to make changes, not only with the treatment, but also in his personal life.
“When I started under the care of Dr. Miller, I was told we are going to take a break from ECT and start a new medication treatment,” Jack says.
Along with changes to his treatment, Jack made a move into a board and care home after living in an environment that was not a good fit for him. All those things, combined with a new outlet — journaling — allowed him to gain more insight and understand that his symptoms were not going to cause him harm.
“Through journaling and writing, he was starting to understand that his symptoms were kind of a lifelong issue but not necessarily something that he needed to be hospitalized for every time he felt them,” Wenzler says.
Sharing his journey with others
For the past three years, Jack has been able to stay out of the hospital by using his coping strategies and tools along with regularly attending the outpatient program at Sharp Grossmont. He is now looking to share his story and has compiled his journal writings into a book, hoping to help others.
“I’ve learned to manage my symptoms and see where I'm coming from by writing this book,” Jack says. “I've learned from Dr. Miller and Michelle that I can help others by sharing my story.”
Through the outpatient program, Jack has learned about mindfulness tools and understanding irrational thoughts. Instead of getting paranoid and going to the hospital for his symptoms, he is practicing deep breathing techniques to manage them.
“Early in his illness, there was marked difficulties trusting providers and accepting treatment,” says Dr. Miller. “It's not uncommon but fortunately, he was able to appreciate some of the benefits he received and fully embrace treatment at this point. It's been extremely rewarding to watch him progress through the program.”
Part of his treatment includes working within a specialized group therapy program, which focuses on empowering patients with life skills for independence. Through this process, Jack has been inspired to become a peer specialist to share what he has learned.
“I want to become a peer specialist because I want to help other people,” Jack says. “I want them to learn from my experience, see how far I've come and where I am now.”
Leading to healing
Along with working with a case manager to enroll in classes, Jack has been provided the opportunity to lead group meetings on certain days of the week to practice being a peer specialist.
“I’m allowing him to present his thoughts to the other group members on how he manages his symptoms,” shares Wenzler. “The other group members have learned a lot and listen to him because they all want to improve as well. That's why the group setting is so amazing — they learn from each other.”
Working in the group setting and sharing his story has provided positive responses from other group members who have inspired Jack to continue his pursuit to be a peer specialist.
“After starting to lead group, the feedback I have received has been amazing,” Jack shares with a smile. “I’ve heard, ‘you have just enlightened my life, and you show me that you can make it this far, so now I know I can.’ Working in a group setting, we all have something to share. What may not help them, may help me.”
Benefits of a team approach
Having the opportunity to work in the outpatient program with a team of caregivers has provided Jack the tools and techniques to manage the stress when certain thoughts may appear. The benefits of the program can help every individual who may be overburdened by life in general.
“In terms of mental health, specifically schizophrenia, you need a team approach,” explains Wenzler. “There are the nurses, the therapists, the psychiatrist, and we have the ER right there if we need to have someone hospitalized. That full team approach provides all the support necessary to help them.”
Jack also recognizes the value of the team approach and each team member. “My experience working with Michelle, Dr. Miller and the entire staff here at Sharp Grossmont has been awesome. I feel like they all really care for my well-being,” he says.