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Center Tries New Approach : Women’s Program Geared for Short-Term Care

The woman is in crisis. Someone she loves is dead, her marriage has disintegrated into divorce, her child is dreadfully ill. An unforeseeable catastrophe has shattered her complacent, well-ordered life. Though she normally handles trauma calmly and efficiently, this time she is desperate, despondent, panicked into emotional paralysis. She’s lost all control.

She visits a therapist who recommends hospitalization, just until her emotions have stabilized. She enters a traditional mental health unit and becomes even more terrified. “Surely I can’t be this sick,” she thinks as she looks at the other patients. Some have been hospitalized repeatedly; many are chronically ill. She feels even more alone than she did at home, and decides that’s where she belongs.

“The real tragedy is that a large number of women stay at home and can be caught in their illness forever,” said Dr. Sharon McClure, clinical director of the new Woman’s Program at Alvarado Parkway Institute in La Mesa, the first all-female inpatient program in the county and one of only a handful in the United States.

“They get frightened in a traditional mental health unit. It may be the first time they’ve experienced severe disturbance. They’re mixed with chronic patients and see themselves ending up that way.”

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McClure and her colleagues in the institute’s more traditional mental health programs came to the realization they had a group of patients who needed a different kind of care, one directed toward women who were normally high-functioning, competent, capable of thinking through their problems. They saw women who needed intensive short-term care to get past a crisis and into a new, more functional method of dealing with the problem.

“We’re fitting the environment and care level to the patients’ level of acceptance and functioning,” explained the institute’s administrator, Woody Woodman, who compared these patients to gifted students in traditional classrooms.

“We’re not talking about creating patients,” McClure added. “They’re already there.”

Developed specifically for this clientele, the Woman’s Program treats women inpatients in a hospital setting that looks like a nicely appointed hotel. The rooms are equipped with plush furnishings and art prints; the lounges and dining halls are designed to encourage small clusters of conversation. The facility could be mistaken for a resort, until one attempts the daily schedule of activities and therapy.

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Think Through Problems

Cognitive therapy forms the basis of the treatment mode; patients are taught to think through their problems, set short-term goals, achieve them, and move on to the next step. Daily mood charts and journals help keep these goals paramount; group sessions on specific emotional issues allow patients to vent their feelings and act as positive role models for each other. Patients are encouraged to become physically active by utilizing the nearby Sports Medicine Center at Alvarado Medical Center; psychological activities include participation in psychodramas, body image workshops and relaxation sessions.

Depending on the needs of the 10 patients the program can accommodate at one time, the schedule includes group discussions and lectures on nutrition, relationships, sexuality, parenting, grief, financial planning, vocational skills, life transitions, and couples groups with husbands and boyfriends. Patients with drug and-or alcohol dependencies or eating disorders also participate in Alvarado Parkway Institute’s structured outpatient programs for those conditions.

“The focus is that there isn’t a magical fix-it doctor,” explained program counselor Jamie Baker-Addison. “We don’t want the patients to exchange their problems for a dependence on the mental health system; we encourage growth, strengths and learning.”

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Though both men and women suffer from psychological traumas and mental illness, women make up nearly two-thirds of all mental health patients in this country. The reasons for this disparity are numerous and often controversial; the founders of the Woman’s Program prefer to discuss the real presence of these patients rather than the philosophical reasons for their existence. They emphasize that although the program is designed for women only, it is not radically feminist or anti-male.

Program Aims to Be Pro-Men

‘It’s important to realize that this program is pro-men,” said Dr. Theresa Crenshaw, a noted relationship and sexuality therapist and director of sexual medicine at API. “Helping women make themselves healthy and happy benefits everyone they come in contact with. It’s not so much that we want to isolate women, as that we want to address their unique needs. If this were a men’s unit, we would put in things women don’t need.

“This cognitive approach works well for women. So often they become so overwhelmed by a multitude of conflicting feelings that they become paralyzed. Women have an incredible threshold for pain. They can wear very well under stress, and be the cavalry for everyone else. Then they become unhappy, tired, depressed. Depression is emotional exhaustion. When women get depressed they push harder and harder instead of resting. They’re like the lady in waiting, waiting until tomorrow to take care of themselves, until the kids are grown, until everyone else is taken care of. They lose a sense of themselves and become caretakers to a toxic extreme.”

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Crenshaw said that women often decide to deal with depression, exhaustion or emotional confusion by trying to get away from it all, to go skiing or spend time lying on a beach in Hawaii. What they need instead is a working vacation to a place where they can sort out their emotions and learn new ways to tackle old problems. “They don’t need an escape where they come back dreading the same issues,” she said. “They need to have the opportunity to heal with support. It’s not selfish to have the strength and courage to put themselves first for a period of time.”

Spending two weeks in a place like the Woman’s Program, undergoing short-term aggressive therapy can act as an antidote to eventual long-term therapy, Crenshaw explained. “Not responding to symptoms can be life-threatening. Don’t wait until you’re suicidal; work on yourself when you have energy and motivation. Then women can learn how to simplify their problems productively, to develop a sense of achievement and power in their own lives.”

Certainly the well-know Superwoman Syndrome has something to do with the crises in women’s lives, Crenshaw said. Quoting comedienne Lily Tomlin, Crenshaw explained how families, careers, relationships and the familiar “I can do it all” attitude have taken their toll on women’s psyches.

“If I’d known what having it all was like I’d have settled for less.”

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