Let’s Include People with Mental Illness in the Diversity and Inclusion Discussion

Carolyn Naseer (middle) from “My Change Agent” introduced me to the team at the Farm at Penny Lane

As a diversity consultant and trainer, I enjoy how much the diversity and inclusion field continues to evolve and expand into new areas (link to blog.) One of the key constituencies that many organization and companies now focus on is full inclusion of people with disabilities. But so often left out of the discussion are those with severe and persistent mental illness. Can they have a productive place in our society? And are they even employable?

A thoughtful and innovative program which can become a model for efforts worldwide is the Farm at Penny Lane in rural Chatham County, North Carolina, but still within 30 minutes of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill. I recently visited the facility to explore and witness their outstanding work.

I was introduced to the Farm at Penny Lane by a consulting colleague, Carolyn Naseer from “My Change Agent,” (link), a boutique management consulting firm with a focus on making a positive impact through collaboration. She is currently assisting the Farm at Penny Lane through XDS, Inc., the non-profit with which the Farm at Penny Lane as one of their initiatives.

Thava Mahadevam and Matt Ballard proudly showing off their “small home” model.

During my visit to their beautiful peaceful 40 acres just north of Pittsboro, I met Director Thava Mahadevam, Social Worker Matt Ballard, and Farmer Jessamine Hyatt. They all passionately shared about their work with me. Some of the current efforts around “whole person health” that are helping people with mental illness gain self-worth include:
• Utilizing people with mental illness to assist with farming and packaging efforts, including growing healthy food and caring for egg-laying chickens.
• Training emotional support dogs, which can often even more therapeutic than meeting with a human counselor.
• Building of small homes in a cluster community environment to provide space for people to productively live on their own.

So often there is negative stigma around suffering with a mental illness, and we all need to be more understanding and caring, providing pathways for recovery and enhanced quality of life. And providing employment, which many of us admittedly dislike and would prefer vacations and holidays instead, is actually a great way of engaging people with mental illness to provide them purpose and meaning. And the staff even refer to those with mental illness serving in these jobs as “volunteers” instead of “patients.”

The colorful building where volunteers train emotional support dogs

The vision of the farm, established through a partnership with the non-profit XDS Inc and the University of North Carolina Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health, is for “our community members with severe mental illness to live longer, healthier, inclusive, and more self-sufficient lives. And their mission: “The Farm at Penny Lane partners with individuals with mental illness to grow nutritious food for themselves and others and offers integrated, community-based, therapeutic programs in an inclusive farm setting.”

I inspect the tomato plants with social worker Matt and farmer Jessamine

Perhaps in the future, industry may even be able to learn from this model to provide meaningful employment for people with mental illness, which will benefit the individuals, the companies, society and our economy!

To schedule a visit and learn more about this uplifting work, do peruse The Farm at Penny Lane’s website. And volunteers and financial support are truly welcomed, check out their “get involved” page.

“Getting Up” from Considering and Attempting Suicide

10 years after attempting suicide, Lacie Childers is a newly pinned Registered Nurse and the happy mother of active 4-year-old Ian.

I thank Betsy Rhodes, the North Carolina Area Director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (link) for suggesting this topic and providing Lacie’s story.

I continue my monthly blog series based on US Figure Skating’s popular “Get Up” campaign which shares the message that life, like the ice, is hard, and we can certainly fall on it. But the more times we get up and persevere, the stronger we become. Since May is Mental Health Awareness Month, my May installment focuses on the very serious issue of suicide.

There is such a stigma around suicide; that somehow people who contemplate ending their lives are seriously beyond repair and that this is something to be very deeply ashamed about and not discussed. However, continuing on the theme of “Getting Up;” with the appropriate assistance and resources, those who consider or attempt suicide can “Get Up” from this low to move on to healthy, productive, fulfilling lives.

Let me share one story from 25-year-old Lacie Childers from Forest City, NC. Lacie had struggled with mood disorder with frequent chronic thoughts of suicide since puberty. Then at the age of 15, things came to head in one day: someone made fun of her from having a speech impediment, she heard that her boyfriend was seeing someone else, and she failed a test. Fortunately, her suicide attempt that day was not successful.

It would have been be very easy for Lacie to just give up on life and continue falling into despair, but instead she “got up” from her situation to move ahead into a promising future. She recently graduated from nursing school and is a newly pinned RN, is the mother of a very active 4-year-old and is the Walk Chair for the Rutherford County “Out of Darkness” Walk.

Here are several helpful points that Lacie shares with others who may be having these same struggles:

• Lacie realizes that having a support team and a safety plan are her most critical tools. Her support team is aware of her stressors and triggers, and when they may be needed to help Lacie take precautions to keep her safe.

• That self-care is very important in “getting up” and that includes complying with medication and therapy regimens.

• That people do indeed have options when it comes to their care and that they can be their own strong advocates. For example, if you do not like your doctor or therapist, you can find a different one. Or you can reach out to a peer support specialist if you don’t feel you are getting the assistance you need.

• Having this mental illness in no way means that Lacie is inferior or incompetent, or that she cannot have an exciting fruitful career and life ahead. In fact, her own experience may even better prepare Lacie to provide the best nursing care for her future patients.

Thank you, Lacie, for “Getting Up” and sharing this inspiration!

And I would like to close this blog with four actions that my own church denomination (Metropolitan Community Churches) encourages during Mental Health Awareness Month:
1. Learn more about the facts of mental ill health and related issues.
2. Challenge our own and other’s negative attitudes and stigma.
3. Talk and reduce isolation.
4. Become more aware of local sources of help and support.

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Link to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention for more info and resources.

Link to my skating blog page which contains links to my first four “get up” blogs.