“When people start paying attention to the needs of individuals with mental illness, it’s important and it’s significant,” said Commissioner Marcia Fowler.
She is optimistic that a health care cost control law, signed last summer by Governor Deval Patrick, that mandated a review of how to improve mental health care in the state could help.
Groups outside of government are focused on the issue, too.
Genesis Club is part of a network of clubhouses for people with mental illness, funded by the state and with private donations. While they provide some addiction recovery services, the clubhouses have historically operated outside of the health care system, focusing on job skills, education, housing, and support services.
Around the same time that the state was looking at health disparities, the Worcester clubhouse started looking at members’ broader well-being.
Obesity was a major problem, said Executive Director Kevin Bradley. When it affected members’ stamina or ability to stand for more than a short period, it also limited their chances of finding employment.
The clubhouse began taking members to work out at a nearby gym. Five years ago, leaders there worked with the University of Massachusetts to develop a program focused on nutrition, exercise, and smoking cessation that has become an example for groups around the world that use the clubhouse model.
Vargas, a member of the Genesis Club, smoked three packs a day when she joined the Healthy Living program two years ago. She struggled to walk the mile and a half from her apartment to the clubhouse.
“I’d huff and puff,” she said. “My breathing was out of control.”
Vargas tries to never miss the group’s weekly meeting. She’s learned how to eat healthier and gotten the encouragement she needed to lose about 100 pounds. Walking is getting easier, she said. “When it feels good in my legs and in my steps, it makes me walk even faster.”
The course has taught her about the dangers of smoking, including interactions with her medication. She said learning how secondhand smoke can affect her miniature dachshund and her grandchildren has been a motivator.
Two years ago, members decided to prohibit smoking on the club’s grounds. Small groups still gather on the sidewalk outside, but losing the social atmosphere of the smoking patio, where there was always a crowd, has helped, Vargas said.
Last week at Genesis Club, Vargas exhaled into a carbon monoxide meter, to measure how much of the gas was in her breath — a proxy for how much had entered her blood through smoking. When she started Healthy Living, she said, she clocked in at 68 parts per million, close to the level that could set off a home alarm. (A non-smoker would register in the low single digits.) Her eyes widened as the screen flashed her latest reading: 22 parts per million.
Later, she described her progress like this: “Breathtaking.”