Cole Center Dedicated to Helping Mental Health Consumers Achieve Full and Healthy Lives

August 9, 2016

“For every tear we shed, they weep a waterfall.
Whenever we feel an ounce of pain, they take the weight upon themselves to beat.
These are the few, the elite, the mentors.
The Mentors never walk among us,
But rather they are always with us.
​Some say that angels do not exist.
I however proudly disagree.”“David”—a participant of McLean’s child and adolescent psychiatry programs and a recipient of the Cole Center’s Cole to Teen Education Project, which matches teens with adult mentors

Since 1991, the Jonathan O. Cole Mental Health Resource Consumer Center, the first of its kind in the nation, has helped countless individuals struggling with mental illness gain access to information and resources that help support their treatment, recovery, and transition back into the community.

Founded as a “consumer-to-consumer education and recovery community,” the Cole Center provides up to date educational materials, training workshops, outreach programs, and media campaigns to help reduce stigma surrounding mental illness. The center is staffed and operated by volunteer mental health consumers, many of whom have dealt successfully with mental illness.

Evie Barkin, co-founder, former executive director, and current president, is one of them.

Diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1976, she knows firsthand what it’s like to have a psychiatric illness with no resources in place for guidance, reassurance, and support. It took 10 years in and out of hospitals and the right medication to help get her life back on track. Since then, she’s been on a mission to help others. She has given presentations throughout the country and abroad, has been interviewed by Tom Brokaw, appeared on 20/20, and has been continually working to help reduce the stigma of psychiatric illness.

“A lot of people come to us after they’ve been hospitalized, after they’ve gotten out of day treatment,” she said. “They come and do volunteer work, which helps them feel better about themselves. We help them during the recovery process, including helping them get paid jobs.”

Barkin noted that when she founded the Cole Center with Anne Whitman, PhD, currently president emeritus and chair of the Metro Boston and Southeast Recovery Learning Communities, they had no idea the center would evolve from “one desk and a filing cabinet to a beautiful center,” now housed in the hospital’s de Marneffe Building. The center is open three days a week—Tuesday and Wednesday, from 10 am to 4 pm, and Thursday, from 1 to 5 pm. In addition, there are several community outreach groups and activities held at different times throughout the week.

Carol Brown, who serves as secretary for the Cole Center and is McLean’s coordinator of volunteer services and the administrative coordinator for the Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) Service, has developed the center’s community outreach programs for the past 20 years.

McLean clinical care
The Cole Center provides consumer information for mental health treatment and recovery

In 2005, she identified an unmet community need and created the Cole to Teen Mentor Project, a mentor program for inpatient adolescents 13 to 18 suffering from mental illness.

“The mentors provide companionship, conversation, activities, and holiday meals. We have a fund that helps provide much-needed personal items and we have a mentor lunch each week and one evening activity every month. There are about 35 mentors who come from McLean, area colleges, and from the community,” said Brown, who has been with McLean for 37 years and has been recognized for her volunteer work by the National Association for Mental Illness and has received McLean’s Vision of Excellence award.

Brown also developed the Consumer Continuing Education Network, through which the center schedules speaking engagements for its consumers to go out into the community to help raise awareness by sharing their experiences about diagnosis, treatment, and recovery.

The most rewarding part of being part of the Cole Center and overseeing the community outreach programs, she said, is “seeing patients get well and be able to return to work, have a social life, and become a functioning person in society. Many of the patients come back and volunteer themselves.”

In 2015, several changes were made within the leadership team at the Cole Center, including the newly created position of hospital liaison, which is being spearheaded by Linda M. Flaherty, RN, PMHCNS-BC, McLean’s senior vice president, Patient Care Services.

“From my perspective, the hospital liaison role is to create bridges not only with the hospital and the Cole Center, but to integrate the Cole Center’s members with many of the hospital’s other self-help and advocacy groups,” said Flaherty.

She pointed out that Barkin and Bettina Hofmann, who serves as the center’s executive director and research and program development specialist, are now part of the McLean Hospital Patient and Family Advisory Council. And, this past winter, Hofmann also joined the hospital’s Interdisciplinary Recovery to Practice Group. “With such a large campus and so many activities, it’s a way to bridge distances,” Flaherty said.

Flaherty said that bringing together more advocacy groups is a priority over the next few years. “We’ve talked about the Cole Center also being a venue for providing more family support and expanding more family-related resources,” said Flaherty.

“The Cole Center has an important mission,” she added. “And I think developing more partnerships between the center and hospital groups, committees, and forums will help us further that mission.”

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