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Mentally Ill Find Strength in Each Other : Health: O.C. conference will showcase growing self-help movement.


Heather Gallas knows what it's like to hear internal voices that begin as whispers, then become louder and more demanding, insisting on self-destruction.

The Tustin woman knows what it's like to take a torturous emotional slide, from working as a self-supporting word processor to being a chronic mental patient, confined to locked wards. Hospitalized about 15 times in six years, she tried 40 different psychiatric drugs before hitting on a stabilizing combination.

Her life experience may not be the usual stuff of an appealing resume, but she defied predictions made three years ago that she would never again hold down a job or live on her own. And she's convinced that other mental patients, by helping one another, can do the same.

"When I was in my deepest, darkest, blackest depression," she said, "I could not see that other side. I hope I can be that other side to somebody. . . . That's what I can do."

Gallas, 34, now an Orange County mental health worker, is an eager member of a burgeoning consumer movement among mental health clients who believe there is comfort--and clout--in numbers. This week, she will join some 1,500 patients and former patients at the Anaheim Marriott for a five-day national conference geared to help them help themselves.

"It's a conference to show the consumer that they count," Gallas said.

Historically, she said, the message has been: ' "You are a schizophrenic and you can't do anything. Sit and talk to yourself all day.' I had a friend tell me I would never, ever work again.

"I think this conference will show, yes, we can."

Entitled "Alternatives '94," the conference is the 10th annual national convention for people with mental illnesses, but the first held in Southern California. Almost all the organizers and leaders involved, at one time or another, have been diagnosed as mentally ill.

Nearly four times as many participants are expected as were at the inaugural conference in Baltimore nine years ago--a good indication, organizers say, that their movement is taking off. "We've just sort of reached a critical mass," said Joseph A. Rogers, executive director of the National Mental Health Consumers' Self-Help Clearinghouse, sponsor of the conference with the help of such local agencies as the Orange County Health Care Agency and the Mental Health Assn. of Orange County. "If it's a legitimate effort, and you get enough people involved, it takes on a life of its own," Rogers said. "Also, I think there's a general cynicism about the old ways of doing things . . . (which) opens people up to new ways."

Organizers say they picked Southern California for the convention partly because mental-health consumerism here has lagged behind other parts of the country. The reasons are unclear, Rogers said, but he speculated the initially radical nature of the movement in Northern California kept the state's more conservative areas on the sidelines.

"We're hoping to get it going" in the south, he said.

Not everyone agrees with that comparative assessment, though.

"I think we are all behind," said Dr. Rick Massimino, a psychiatrist who founded the John Henry Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Orange serving mentally ill people. Everywhere "there's still terrible discrimination, a need for flexibility and understanding," but particularly in the workplace and housing markets, Massimino said.

At the conference, more than 100 workshops will cover topics including "The Nuts and Bolts of a Successful Consumer Newsletter," "Using Humor to Turn Your Life Around" and "Spirituality and the Self." But the hottest topics this year are expected to be employment and health-care reform.

The workshop leaders will speak from personal experience as mental patients or former patients.

"None of these people are types that haven't lived what they are talking about," Rogers said--himself included. Years before becoming a movement leader, as a teen-ager, he suffered a "psychotic break" and lived on the streets of New York City for nine months, eating out of garbage cans and sleeping on a park bench.

Leaders will "discuss what it is that's helped them recover. They're not some Ph.D., some theoretician saying what might help the mentally ill," he said.

Mental health clients like Marty Fuca of Garden Grove appreciate this hands-on, fraternal approach.

Fuca, who attended the "Alternatives" conference in Berkeley three years ago, said he picked up practical tips no therapist ever gave him: that it's particularly important to avoid junk food, for example, and to spend at least two hours a day in sunlight.

"Those are things I want to know, just like a diabetic's got to have insulin," he said.

Some of the people at the Berkeley conference were "a little strange," he said, "but at least they were trying."

Their aspirations were not grandiose, he said.

"They knew they weren't Lee Iacoccas . . . but they wanted to know 'My life means something.' They wanted to know if they're thrown in the loony bin, 'I'm not going to be there the rest of my life.' "

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