Members of the North Lawndale Urban Ministry Bible Group meet at I Am Able Family Development Center. Credit: Provided

NORTH LAWNDALE — A peer-based, “living room” model of emergency mental health care is expanding on the West Side, as a social service organization prepares to launch its drop-in center early next year.

I AM ABLE Center for Family Care is developing the crisis care resource at its 3410 W. Roosevelt Road headquarters so neighbors struggling with trauma can have an alternative to hospitalization when they experience a mental health emergency.

The space will be a living room, a new model for mental health care that allows people to come in, cool down and get help from others who have overcome similar issues to stabilize their situations.

A similar crisis health center opened last month in Austin at the Renaissance Living Room, 4835 W. Chicago Ave.

RELATED: Drop-in Mental Health Center Opens On West Side To Give Peer Support To People In Crisis

The living room at I AM ABLE is expected to open in early 2022. The program is funded by a grant from the Illinois Department of Human Services intended to build a local crisis care system on the West Side.

“The goal is to prevent people from going to the emergency room unnecessarily. We know what happens with our people: They’re in a mental health crisis and they end up in jail,” said Carolyn Vessel, CEO of I AM ABLE. “We want to give people an opportunity to have a safe place and people that are skilled to help deal with that.”

The design of the living room will incorporate therapeutic elements like a flowing water feature to put people at ease and “remind you of the peace, serenity and calm that you deserve,” Vessel said.

The living room will be staffed by peer support specialists who are trained to talk with a person in a crisis and share strategies and resources they have benefitted from in their journey to overcome their own mental health struggles.

The living room approach also allows people who have suffered from mental illnesses to become an asset to their community and use their past challenges as a way to uniquely connect with those who need a support system they can trust, Vessel said.

“There was a time they didn’t want people to come to the job and talk about personal experiences. But we have found we have lost a lot of steam … by suppressing those testimonies. You are more likely to listen to somebody about something they have experienced but have put things in place to begin to overcome it,” Vessel said.

Vessel is working with first responders so they may eventually be able to bring people in a crisis to I AM ABLE’s living room instead of to the emergency room. There long has been an extremely limited range of options for getting help, especially on the West Side, so hospitalization has often been the only solution.

The emphasis on peer support also helps break down the stigma around mental health, Vessel said. Creating more options outside a clinical setting for getting mental health support makes it easier for people to reach out to get support, she said.

And talking to somebody who has been in a similar situation reduces the shame around seeking help by making it clear that “all of us have a mental breakdown sometimes,” Vessel said.

“People don’t want to go because nobody wants to admit they need care. It’s about shifting the way things are done so it’s more palatable to people,” Vessel said.

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