A Place for Peer Support

A Place for Peer Support

Since opening in January, a drop-in center for people with mental illness is flourishing.

They were looking for a place to relax, a place to get away. They wanted relief not just from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, but also from those who might judge them.

For about eight months, a group of local people with mental illness held weekly meetings to organize a peer center, a social gathering place to call their own.

Their work paid off when Fairfax County opened a non-profit drop-in center in January for the mentally ill in Reston run by the mentally ill. In addition to a comfortable social environment, the center also offers support, job and advocacy training.

“It’s mental health consumers helping other mental health consumers,” said Elaine Weadon, president of the drop-in center’s consumer advisory council.

SINCE JAN. 17, several people over 18 with mental disabilities ages have taken advantage of the drop-in center, which features several amenities, including a kitchen, a TV room, a game room, a computer room and an arts and crafts area.

Weadon, who said she was diagnosed with depression but has had it under control since 1997, helped come up with the idea for the center.

“We needed a place where we could come and relax where we’re not stigmatized,” said Weadon, a Herndon resident.

Weadon and a few others on the consumer advisory council, including Peter Galloway, the council’s treasurer, spent months researching the idea. “We went to drop-in centers in New Jersey to see how they were run,” said Galloway, who lives in Reston.

Weadon envisioned a consumer-run operation because “consumers understand consumers better than counselors.”

WHILE THE CENTER does not offer clinical services, it can be therapeutic. “It’s helped me with my depression,” said Katherine Vu of Herndon. Originally from Vietnam, Vu first came to the United States 31 years ago when she 11 years old. “I became scared of everything,” she said. “It was totally overwhelming.”

Now, Vu comes to the center three times a week to socialize and take art classes. “I have fun and it helps me with my issues,” she said.

Galloway, who enjoys playing pingpong at the center, likes the chess games best. As one of the center’s facilitators, Galloway helps keep the space clean and tries “to make people feel welcome.”

“[The drop-in center] is just a nice place to hang out,” said Marilyn Witkin, a PRS, Inc. peer-support specialist. PRS, Inc., located in the same building as the drop-in center at 1820 Michael Faraday Dr., is a 43-year-old non-profit created to provide support services and training needed for men and women to recover from mental illness.

According to Weadon, PRS and the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board helped the drop-in center become a reality. CSB provided the money for it, said Weadon. Right now, a staff member from PRS is stationed at the center during its hours of operation. But that’s only until the center finalizes its contract with the county, said Weadon.

On Feb. 9, the center held a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate its grand opening. But Weadon and others on the advisory council are still working hard to spread the word. “I think when the word is out, we will have a lot more people coming,” said Weadon.