Greater Chicago's DBSA Helps People Find Strength in Numbers


Every now and then, you hear about angels in our society - people who perform selfless acts of kindness or non-profit organizations that are doing great work for a specific clientele. The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance - Greater Chicago (DBSA-GC) is a perfect example. They support persons with mood disorders. In addition, DBSA-GC counsels family members & friends and provides training for professionals in the mental health industry. Check out their statistics:

1,740+ - Number of consumers serviced at the group meetings annually

1,100+ - Number of phone calls handled annually

The organization was begun by two women, Marilyn Weiss and Rose Kurlan, whose psychiatrist suggested that they meet with others to share their experiences. The first informal meetings were held in people’s homes in 1978. It was a Chicago Tribune article that brought attention to the group. Soon they were flooded with calls and needed an answering service. Eventually, the founders responded to requests from folks in other cities that wanted to start their own chapters. They are the originators of the national DBSA (http://www.dbsalliance.org) which now has over 400 chapters across the U.S.

I recently interviewed the current President, Judith Sturm, to learn more about what challenges they experience and their plans for the future.

How long have you been President and how has the organization changed since you were elected? “I have been President for the past five years, but first became associated with DBSA-GC in 1998. In regard to changes, there are two things that come to mind. First, we’ve added more support group locations - one in Evanston and one at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. Secondly, I believe I have a more positive, proactive attitude with the board members and have motivated them to become more involved than in the past. Consequently, attendance at the monthly meetings has improved and communications have increased. I enjoy getting everyone fired up and love to hear everyone’s opinions – even if we sometimes disagree.”

What is the most memorable experience you’ve had since becoming affiliated with DBSA-GC? “In 2003, I facilitated a support group (the attendees are referred to as consumers) and someone mentioned he was a nurse who was having difficulty getting a job. The person had a six-month gap in his resume and would tell potential employers about his illness. I explained to him that he did not need to inform the employers he has a mood disorder because this was none of their concern. I continued by saying that instead he could tell them he needed to take time off to care for a family member who was ill. The fact that he was the family member did not need to be revealed. The gentleman reported to the group in a couple of months that my recommendation worked and he was employed. He recently attended a meeting and told the support group he is still employed.”

What changes do you believe need to be made within the mental healthcare system? “First of all, we need more clinics for people who don’t have insurance. As far as I recall, Alexian Brothers Mental Health Center in Arlington Heights is one of the few that offers a sliding scale in the NW Suburbs. Secondly, the cost of prescriptions is ridiculous. If someone suffers from depression, they may need several meds - an anti-depressant, an anxiety medication, and a third to help them sleep at night. The total for these three prescriptions can be very expensive on a monthly basis.”

Okay, with that in mind, what is your opinion about the use (or overuse) of drugs as a major component of the treatment plan for mental health patients? “It is a concern. In the sessions, I am astounded by the sheer number of meds some people are taking. They also mention they’re still not feeling as well as they had hoped. So, I always recommend that they speak to their doctors about this as well as their pharmacist to determine if there is a conflict with the medications. Once there is a diagnosis, that’s a shock, but the next hurdle is finding the right combination of prescriptions for the person. It is imperative that the consumer keep a close check and log their reactions to the meds. This will help the doctor gauge efficacy and dosage. People often get discouraged because the physical side effects can be severe. This is a major turn-off and leads many to discontinue their medications.”

How have treatments changed over the last ten years for patients with mental health illnesses? “There are more options available because of the variety of medications now and this can be a double-edged sword. Doctors like to prescribe the newer meds, but those are usually more costly. Very often, the psychiatrists prescribe the newer meds because they want to see the results for the patient and hope that this might be “the one”.

How does DBSA-GC help your consumers fight the stigma associated with these illnesses? “I believe talking to people with similar experiences in a group setting reduces the fear. We do not encourage people to explain themselves in the workplace. However, it’s very important to share this information with family and friends. They need to know why someone is experiencing mood swings so they can be supportive."

In conclusion, what is on your organization’s wish list for this year? “Well, we have two events that we want to be very successful. Our annual Symposium will be held on April 17th at the NorthShore University HealthSystem in Evanston. There will be a variety of speakers discussing the medical & legal issues, lifestyle management, and suicide prevention, including Kevin Roy of ABC7 News. Then on October 10th, we’re running in the Bank of America Chicago Marathon. Our team is Stomp Out Stigma – Run for Mental Health and this is the first year we are participating in their Charity Program. We are really excited to have runners who are fundraising for us. Plus, we have a training program and special perks lined up for them too. However, anyone can contribute to our cause through our website or the fundraising page for the marathon event.”

It was a pleasure chatting with Judith. She’s a very down-to-earth soul and an effective leader. To learn more about the organization, their support groups or events, visit the website at http://dbsa-gc.org, call 773-465-3280 or email wecanhelp@dbsa-gc.org.

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