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Join REDgen for a FREE presentation on Resilience and Suicide Prevention in our community on May 30th. See details below!
By Marcia Smith
Six-hour suicide calls are not the norm at COPE Hotline, but it was a call to remember for Mequon resident Janie Miller. The nine-year COPE veteran said she was the first to answer the call from a desperate suicidal man walking the streets of Chicago. After six hours of hanging up, calling back, and talking to numerous volunteers, the man was finally convinced to walk into an emergency room for help.
It was “unbelievable and intense” said Miller, but the COPE staff and volunteers stayed with the man through his trauma and made sure the hospital was ready for him when he walked through their door.
The retired teacher and mother of three calls COPE, “one place I feel that the people I volunteer for make me feel important.” Volunteers really help people here, she says.
According to Miller, the comprehensive training she went through to be a COPE listener helped her improve listening skills in everyday life and with her family. “Training people to be a listener is extensive,” she said, “and they don’t let you man the phones until you’re ready.”
COPE Hotline has been a staple of Ozaukee County since 1979 and provides emotional support, crisis intervention, information and referral services to people in need. Its administrative offices are in Grafton, but for security reasons, it keeps its hotline at an undisclosed location.
The 24-hour call center receives more than 28,000 calls a year, and although the majority of them come from Milwaukee and Ozaukee counties, calls do come in from across the U.S, according to COPE Executive Director Cecile Duhnke.
The callers span all age groups, and include people with mental health struggles, loneliness, depression, relationship problems and addiction issues. “Cope is anonymous and confidential,” said Duhnke, “we don’t identify our callers or our listeners by name,” she said. “It’s our job to just listen and provide a safe, trusting environment for everyone.”
COPE’s goal is to reduce the stress level of every caller and help them identify the next step in their day. Basically, a listener is helping the caller “cope” through a particularly bad moment of their day or night, said Duhnke.
According to Miller, there are often repeat callers, “who I feel could be my friend. We are their touchstone …. someone between their social worker and doctor who they can talk to.”
Miller’s weekly trip to COPE is often a spiritual journey. She says, “I always say a prayer when I drive up and ask God to give me the right words and to say the right thing. And when I leave, I think wow, people really do just need a person to listen them.”
COPE is a non-profit group supported by private donations, United Way, and other charitable organizations. The Hotline can be reached at 262-377-COPE. Additional information is available at www.copeservices.org.
Director of Behavioral Health in Hospitals and Partnerships
Aurora Health Care
Joy Mead-Meucci has made a lifelong commitment to behavioral health, starting her career working with family members as a psychotherapist and then serving as an AODA (Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse) counselor. Today, she is Director of Behavioral Health in Hospitals and Partnerships at Aurora Health Care, a leadership position she has held for 20 years. Joy has served on the COPE Services Board of Directors for three years and will serve another three-year term through 2020. She is a resident of Ozaukee County.
Q. Tell us about why you decided to join the Board of Directors for COPE Services. What was your motivation?
A. There is still a stigma for people living with mental illness. Lots of misconceptions. If you are different or you are not available emotionally, I think you can get run over. We need more compassion. COPE Services, which started 40 years ago as a grassroots support group and hotline for Ozaukee County parents, saw a need and filled it with empathetic listening by trained volunteers. With so much digital technology, conversations are harder to come by these days. When in distress, I think it’s reassuring to hear someone else’s voice on the other end of a phone line.
Q. How does supportive listening work? How is it different from a crisis hotline?
A. Our COPE Services Hotline training reflects current information and best practices. Most crisis lines do not have the staffing resources allowing people to stay on the line to listen to what is on the minds of callers. Our volunteers, some who have been with COPE for more than 20 years, provide non-judgmental, informed listening. We offer a safe place for a confidential conversation. This is a vital local resource to anyone feeling depressed, lonely, anxious or unloved.
Q. What does COPE offer that people can’t get from yours or another health care system?
A. The availability whenever people may need assistance is key. All providers in our mental health care system are available to our patients, but not always 24-7. There is a continuum of feelings people with mental illness—or anyone for that matter—have on any given day. They can’t necessarily take themselves to an ER (emergency room) if they are severely depressed.
Q. What changes have you seen regarding the treatment of mental illness in recent years and what more is needed to improve care?
A. Access and affordability are still key issues. If you don’t have insurance, it can take months or even years to get into therapy. In the past, when someone was admitted into a psychiatric hospital you had up to 300 days for treatment. Today, you have four days. For people with serious conditions, recovery can feel like swimming through mud.
The stigma is also still there. When I hear people with mental illness described as crazy, nut jobs, it infuriates me. There is so much disrespect. These are brain disorders. People don’t always see it that way.
At the same time, we are really coming much further. By providing more holistic care. By filling the gaps through outpatient services and nonprofit community programs like COPE’s. We are developing more technology-based services, such as telemedicine. We still have a long way to go. But professionals and other caregivers now recognize that you need a multi-pronged approach to helping people with mental illness.
Q. What does the future hold for COPE Services?
The demand for our services is increasing at a time when we are seeing an increase in residents reporting mental health conditions and a decrease in funding for critical services like ours. Unfortunately, mental illness can be a hidden problem, because of the shame, fear or embarrassment over what other people may think. Yet, 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experiences mental illness in a given year. Many also suffer from alcohol or substance abuse.
I don’t know how you can change this trajectory other than by helping one person at a time. At COPE Services, we offer that individual attention. We listen, intervene in crisis situations, and give resource referrals connecting people to the organizations they and their families need. It is not always easy to recognize when a mental health problem exists or where to turn to for treatment.
More awareness about mental health is important for everyone. We’ve been part of the mental health solution for 40 years. Through our supportive listening hotline, education and outreach services, COPE plans to be part our mental health care community for many years to come.
A new program from COPE Services is providing a vital community connection to seniors through weekly emotional support calls, thanks to a grant from Bader Philanthropies. The two-year program was launched in Fall 2017 and continues through Fall 2019.
As more Baby Boomers cross the 65+ threshold, the number of aging adults who live alone has grown to 11 million or 28 percent of the population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. For women, who tend to live longer, it is a startling 46 percent. Although living alone does not necessarily lead to isolation or loneliness, the risk is certainly much higher as spouses, close friends or family members pass on or move far away.
Isolated Seniors at Risk
Without a strong social network to support them, socially isolated seniors face many risks to their well-being and physical health. Elderly depression, cognitive decline, heart disease, diabetes and a variety of other chronic health conditions are prevalent among seniors who have little to no social contact or activity. As our health declines and getting out of the house becomes more difficult, these physical limitations can leave many seniors even more isolated.
“Added stress often goes together with the aging process,” said Cecile Duhnke, executive director for COPE Services. “Fortunately, Ozaukee and our other North Shore counties have many wonderful programs and services to help seniors enrich their lives, promote more social activity and improve overall health.”
Referrals to these services is one purpose for the Call to Connect program. But it is not the only one. By staying connected to these seniors over a period of six months, the goal is to develop trusting relationships, learn more about each senior’s situation, and then link them to supportive community services meeting their needs.
“By putting these at-risk seniors in touch with our knowledgeable volunteers, our hope is that this constant encouragement will help them to become more engaged in the community,” adds Duhnke. “That, in turn, could lead to other mental health and physical improvements.”
Up to 80 seniors in Ozaukee County and the North Shore Community of Greater Milwaukee will be served by the Call to Connect program. COPE staff and trained volunteer listeners will place calls to 20 seniors on a weekly basis for a six- month period. Those seniors will rotate out and a new group of seniors will be added for the second six-month period and so on. This process will be repeated in 2019.
To enroll a senior, to volunteer or get more information, please contact Jan Valentine at COPE. Call (262) 377-1477, ext. 108 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In an April issue of People magazine, superstar singer-songwriter Mariah Carey revealed she has bipolar ll disorder, a mental health condition characterized by periods of high energy followed by episodes of depression or hopelessness. With Bipolar l disorder, the mood swings are the same—each phase sometimes lasting weeks or months—but the mania is more severe. Left untreated, either condition can be disruptive for patients, making it difficult for them to have positive and healthy relationships or thrive in the workplace.
Carey waited 17 years to reveal her battle with mental illness, explaining to People Editor-in-Chief Jeff Cagle, “I didn’t want to carry around the stigma of a lifelong disease that would define me and potentially end my career.” She went on to say, “Until recently, I lived in denial and isolation and in constant fear someone would expose me.”
As the dozens of dedicated COPE Hotline volunteers who take calls from our friends in Ozaukee and neighboring counties will tell you, Carey’s feelings of isolation and loneliness are not unusual. In fact, it is the most common concern expressed by nearly 37 percent of people who regularly use the COPE Hotline, a 24/7 service giving callers supportive listening and an empathetic ear.
Like Carey, the COPE Hotline callers who share their experiences describe feelings of anxiety, restlessness, sadness and hope. One COPE caller, Jeremiah, calls the Hotline about once a week. Jeremiah is a 34-year-old man who lives in Milwaukee. In each call he openly identifies himself by name – even though COPE is anonymous – and that he has bipolar disorder. According to COPE’s compassionate volunteers, Jeremiah is characteristically in an upbeat mood and has an open nature.
24/7 Caring Connection
For people like Jeremiah, having someone to talk to who understands unreservedly what they are going through can lift the emotional burden they may carry because of negative stereotypes and perceptions that exist about people with a mental illness. Jeremiah says he really appreciates COPE and his ability to call anytime he feels the need. “Knowing it is out there is very helpful,” he says.
Through treatment and support services like COPE, Jeremiah’s stability has increased over the last three years. While he lives at home, he recently began working as a peer specialist in an outpatient clinic. It is there that he works with other staff, including case managers, doctors, nurses and therapists. He enjoys his job and says he has developed an “understanding of the multi-faceted aspects of recovery.”
During his work day, Jeremiah meets with clients and helps them with various aspects of managing their illnesses, including delivering medication and referring them to resources. His job not only helps him maintain independence, it has become a stabilizing influence as he lives every day with bipolar disorder. He often calls at the end of his work day to de-stress and talk through situations. “Having someone who’s impartial is really helpful,” he says of the COPE Hotline.
Paying it Forward
COPE is proud to serve callers like Jeremiah, who has turned his illness into an asset. He has turned his situation around and is using his experience with mental illness to help others with their battles on the road to recovery. Sometimes, as Jeremiah himself has learned, friendly encouragement or a kind word, knowing that someone is listening in a non-judgmental way, can make all the difference.
According to the Mayo Clinic, an estimated 3 million people in the U.S. are diagnosed with bipolar disorder every year.
For every Jeremiah and Mariah Carey, there are many, many more people struggling with mental illness, addiction, a medical condition or disability, isolation or loneliness. Jeremiah has learned he can lead a full, productive life with treatment and the right support network.
Says Carey, “I’m hopeful we can get to a place where the stigma (of mental illness) is lifted from people going through anything alone. It can be incredibly isolating. It does not have to define you, and I refuse to allow it to define me or control me.”
Until then, services like the COPE Hotline offer a vital link to callers like Jeremiah who—on any given day, at any hour—simply feel the need to connect with an understanding listener who cares.
Imagine being in a dark room, no windows or light, you are completely alone and the space feels suffocating. You feel intense pain, but in no discernable part of your body. Your mind rages, mostly against yourself. You feel unwanted by those you love most dearly. Perhaps they would be better off without you. Work seems unbearable. Everyone is irritating. Even the smallest task is too much. You’d like to get out into the light, but for some unknown reason you are too broken, too tired, too hopeless.
For people with a serious mental illness, such as bipolar disorder or treatment-resistant depression, that is often how the world looks and feels during an episode. This description may sound familiar to individuals who experience mental illness or to their loved ones who desperately want to help them lead joy-filled, satisfying, rich lives. It is less familiar to society at large, to friends and family or work colleagues who may have caught a glimpse of this behavior but know little about the circumstances or underlying illnesses that may have led to it.
This gap in awareness or understanding, and the shame, distress, pain, anxiety and isolation so many affected by mental illness experience is why COPE Services exists.
COPE was founded in 1978 as the Concerned Ozaukee Parents Exchange. A caring group of women from the Junior Women’s Club of Mequon-Thiensville started this supportive calling network to offer a compassionate ear and guidance to other local parents experiencing mental health issues in their families.
“We owe a debt of gratitude to those early volunteers and workers who developed COPE, brought support and empathetic listening to the callers and laid the groundwork for where COPE is today,” exclaims Cecile Duhnke, executive director for COPE Services.
In the first few years, COPE volunteers took calls from their own homes. There were 78 calls the founding year. By 1981, COPE was named Ozaukee County’s official Hotline, providing 24-hour access and crisis intervention for Ozaukee County residents while continuing to serve as an emotional support line for all Southeastern Wisconsin.
During the 1980s and ‘90s, COPE added outreach activities to educate people about mental health issues and how to recognize them; where to seek quality mental health services and treatment; and how to access nonprofit support services to aid in recovery and rehabilitation of community members. COPE’s relationships with human services providers in Ozaukee County; emergency, police and fire departments; local health care systems; public schools; faith-based organizations; and bedrock charities also grew.
In recent years, COPE Services and other providers have seen a dramatic rise in mental health issues impacting teen and youth populations. About 20 percent of youth between 13 and 18 live with a mental health condition, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). To meet this need, COPE developed a school-based outreach program focused exclusively on Ozaukee County. It is designed to raise awareness about mental illness and lower the stigma so that it’s easier for young people who are struggling to reach out for help. In addition to teaching healthy coping skills for stress and anxiety, the outreach program also addresses common mental health challenges and puts audiences in the minds of young people experiencing mental illness.
In December 1999, the COPE Administrative Office moved to its current home and joined with six other non-profit agencies in the Family Enrichment Center in Grafton. The listening center is located at an undisclosed location.
Mental Illness a Healthcare Priority
In 2016-17, a Mental Health Systems & Gap Analysis was conducted for Ozaukee and Washington Counties to facilitate discussion and a better understanding of current service delivery conditions; gaps in and barriers to service provision; and resources needed to improve mental health in these communities. Interviews were conducted with experts across the public and private sectors involved in or connected to local mental health care. Among the findings:
- Wait times to see therapists are often four to six weeks due to a shortage of providers and the financial costs of accessing mental health care.
- Because it can be hard to access services for any number of reasons, people may wait too long and end up accessing care only in a time of crisis.
- One healthcare provider’s Emergency Department sees about 15 cases of mental health distress per week, including suicidal ideation and overdoses.
These and similar circumstances at health care systems, county service centers and other local agencies help explain why the COPE Hotline received more than 24,000 calls last year and 28,000 in 2016. In fact, 76 percent of the people who use the COPE Hotline are repeat callers. Most callers (66 percent) report income levels below poverty level.
The reasons for their calls are as varied and complex as our mental health system: one caller is trying to endure a horrific trauma; another is fighting a fatal addiction; an elderly caller just experienced the devastating loss of her husband; someone a caller cares for is in danger from opioid addiction.
With professional treatment and counseling resources sometimes overwhelmed, the COPE Hotline has remained a constant lifeline and always-on resource to callers seeking to talk with someone who understands their grief, the emotional pain they are in, or even the joy they experience when overcoming an obstacle or challenge.
As long as mental health issues impact the lives of people living in Ozaukee County and neighboring communities, COPE will continue to explore meaningful ways to expand its emotional support, outreach and education activities.
COPE’s Challenges Ahead
Funding. As we look forward, COPE is strong, but we also face challenges. In 2018, our funding was cut by about $60,000, so one of the biggest focuses of the year is to expand our sources of funding. One example is a new program, Call to Connect, an outgoing emotional support effort for seniors who may not have family or friends close by leaving them isolated.
Programming. We know there are many people here in our county that need help but won’t call a hotline. If they won’t call a hotline, then we need to offer them another way to ask for help.
So, we will continue to research and develop programming that supports them. That’s why this year we are strengthening our ties to the faith community and our schools. We know this is one of the most effective ways to reach young people.
The COPE executive team and staff, our board, volunteers and other advocates look forward to a day very soon when we can talk easily about mental health without the shame and stigma associated with it; when mental health is fully integrated into healthcare and it is embraced in the same way as other diseases, like cancer or diabetes; and when we can better reach the teens, veterans and elderly in our community who are struggling.
A big thank you to University Wisconsin Milwaukee College of Nursing students, who delivered their final presentation to COPE Executive Director, Cecile Duhnke, and Volunteer Manager, Miriam Stern, on Friday, May 4. The group, led by Clinical Instructor Gina Michelle Welch, focused on the growth of peer support in community mental health treatment.
Join LiFE OF HOPE for a FREE Community Suicide Education Forum feat. Josh Rivedal and his one-man play “Kicking my Blue Genes in the Butt.”
May 8th, 6:00 PM, at West Bend High School Auditorium. Doors open at 5:00.
To RSVP visit: https://www.facebook.com/events/223701731698073/
A HUGE thank you to Community United Methodist Church of Cedarburg, to Pastor Dave and Pat Morrissey for raising $3200 for COPE this spring! Through a Car Wash event, presentations at the church and an event with the Youth Group, CUMC enabled COPE to generate awareness for our agency and the church really came out to support us. We are overwhelmed with gratitude.
Pat Morrissey of Community United Methodist Church (left) presents a check to Executive Director Cecile Duhnke.