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‘I was a walking zombie’ — a Utahn’s journey back to mental health
Mental health » Program helps “members” rebuild lives through work, making them self-sufficient.

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For Grey, that engagement helped set him on the road to recovery.

"The work-ordered day," he said, "got the dazed and confused look out of my eye and my brain functioning again."

While he still cannot remember large chunks of the past decade, Grey does recall fragments of his devastating breakdown.

At a glance

Facts about mental illness and recovery

Mental illnesses are biologically based brain disorders that fall along a continuum of severity.

About 1 in 5 » U.S. families affected by mental illness

About 1 in 17 » In the U.S. suffer from serious mental illness

Widespread » Mental disorders make up four of the 10 leading causes of disability in the U.S. and other developed countries.

Source: National Alliance on Mental Illness

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"Mine hit at [age] 36," Grey said. "No sign of nothing, then 36 — boom — and they said it was stress."

At the time, Grey said, he lost all support. "It was like I didn’t exist anymore."

Professionals first told Grey he had suffered a psychotic break. The bipolar diagnosis came later, a mental illness that, in hindsight, Grey believes has been with him throughout his life. But the potent medications prescribed to subdue his mood swings also robbed him of mental activity, eventually leading to the determination that he could no longer work.

"I lost two years being doped up," Grey said. "I had nine hospital visits in two years and was almost sent to the state hospital. That’s when they put me on disability and said, ‘You’re retired ... you can’t mentally handle a job.’  "

Grey now takes other medications and, with help from Alliance House, has defied that harsh prognosis. He works full time as a packaging operator in an area business and is off government disability.

That achievement means a lot to Grey. "Disability wasn’t enough to live on, for one thing," he said, "and I had 20 years left; what am I going to do with my life?"

The work-ordered day helped rebuild Grey’s mind so he could participate in transitional employment, an Alliance House option that offers six- to nine-month stints of part-time entry-level work with 11 area businesses, including

HomeGoods, T.J. Maxx, Squatters and the University of Utah.

Alliance House also helps member

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s land permanent jobs, offering assistance with résumés, cover letters, interviews, job applications, references, training and more. Nearly 50 members now have such jobs, said staff member Amber Mackay, while seven finished high school and one graduated from the U. last spring.

"Once you learn how to do it here, you take it outside," Grey said. "The treatment you get here is in layers ... so the crash and burn is over."

Beyond the meds » "We’re purposely short-staffed," Braun explained. "That makes the members absolutely vital, and then they discover their strengths."

Alliance House employs 10 staffers and functions on an annual $1 million budget, Braun said. Besides the day center, the program maintains 29 apartments for homeless members and those at risk of becoming homeless.

"Alliance House turns the medical model on its head," said Braun, a licensed clinical social worker.

The old mind-set had been, "You’re a client, you need us to take care of you. Don’t ever try to work again, don’t expect to have a spouse and family,’ " Braun said.

Those stigmas are fading.

"Mental illness isn’t a life sentence," Rice said. " So many people who suffer from mental illness completely isolate — for years sometimes. This [Alliance House] brings people back into the world where, step by step, they can re-engage ... and contribute."

Drugs and therapy still have their place

, Braun noted. What that model lacks, however, is "no safe place to grow and to bloom and to use all of your strengths."

That’s what Alliance House delivers.

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