Wellness Blog

"Wellness is not the absence of illness but the presence of purpose in life; satisfying work and play, joyful relationships, a healthy body and environment— and happiness"

Stairways Case Manager to Participate in National Suicide Walk in Memory of Brother

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Rashell Ulrich knew she had to find a way to remember him.

Her brother had meant too much to her to let something as conclusive as suicide have the final word on him.

Dealing with the grief would be a challenge in itself, but appropriately honoring her brother would become her mission.


On a late August afternoon in 2010, Jamie Wilt and his girlfriend, Magen Porter, were on their way to catch the sunset aboard his motorcycle when a drunk driver blindsided the couple at an intersection.

Porter, the passenger, died at the scene. Wilt was in critical condition but would pull through.

Though he sustained injuries including a punctured lung and broken bones, it was Porter’s death that rendered Wilt a broken man. During the months that followed the crash, it was clear life was difficult for Wilt, a person his family had always leaned on during trying times.

“My brother was always the strongest person that I’ve ever known—he was not scared of anything,” Rashell said. “After that accident, he couldn’t sleep at night, he was depressed, he definitely had post-traumatic stress.”

Without treatment, Wilt never recovered from the psychological wounds he incurred that late summer day and died by suicide the following March.

For Rashell, she didn’t just lose her younger brother, but one of her best friends and the man who walked her down the aisle at her wedding.

“My brother’s death impacted me in ways that are unimaginable,” she said. “I’m a different person, but I knew I had to do something.

“If I didn’t have something to keep his memory alive, I don’t know how I would survive this whole thing.”

On June 27, Rashell will have a chance to honor her brother’s memory on a national stage when she walks more than 16 miles overnight at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s (AFSP) Out of the Darkness Walk in Boston. Having raised the $1,000 that is required to participate, she will be joined by thousands of other walkers whose lives have been in some way affected by suicide.

“It’s very weird, but the second my brother died, I knew I needed help,” she said. “And I just found them.”

For Rashell, that “them” was the AFSP, a non-profit organization dedicated to the fight against suicide through research, education and advocacy.

Since Wilt’s death, Rashell has become increasingly involved with AFSP. She has attended the organization’s national conferences and has helped organize Erie’s community Out of the Darkness Walk, AFSP’s annual walk against suicide held in cities across the United States.

This year, the local walk will take place Sept. 27 at Presque Isle State Park.

By taking part in the national walk, Rashell hopes that others in similar situations to her brother may be inspired to seek help when struggling.

“Guys like my brother — who are these big strong guys who take care of everybody— and then he gets sick and won’t get help for it,” Rashell said. “I want guys like him to feel safe getting help.”

To that end, Rashell will decorate a luminary adorned with Wilt’s photo and a candle that will join thousands of others lining the walk route—each representing a life touched by suicide.

“It’s very special to me that my brother will be lit up and represented there,” Rashell said. “My whole point in doing this was to have him represented.”

To contribute to Rashell walking in honor of her brother, click http://afsp.donordrive.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=donorDrive.participant&participantID=753305. Rashell will also be selling for $5 apiece Country Fair coupon books valued at $25. One-hundred percent of the proceeds will go to AFSP Erie.

For more information about the Out of Darkness walk, visit https://www.afsp.org/out-of-the-darkness-walks.

Stairways staff experience 'Voices'

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

“You’re stupid; you’re going to screw it up!” “Look at you, you’re a mess!” “Don’t touch it!”

Imagine hearing these insults hurled at you while trying to carry out daily tasks or answer basic questions.

That was the experience a group of Stairways Behavioral Health employees had the opportunity to gain insight into during a recent auditory simulation workshop called Hearing Distressing Voices.

Hearing Distressing Voices is an innovative training program developed by psychologist and disability-rights activist Dr. Pat Deegan that helps people understand the challenges that face people with psychiatric disabilities.

During the training facilitated by Elena Caplea of Community Care Behavioral Health, participants listen to voices through headphones while completing a series of tasks such as taking a mental status exam, social interaction with the community and filling out word puzzles.

All Stairways employees who participated in the training reported having difficulty with concentration, memory and compliance with basic commands. Negative feelings, such as frustration and embarrassment were also the consensus among the group. Each member, however, said that the experience was illuminating and would cause them to be even more understanding.

Their experience was not uncommon for those who have taken part in the training.

On a June 2014 episode of his TV news show Anderson Cooper 360, Cooper hosted Deegan and took part in the simulation. When asked to complete tasks and answer basic questions, the usually astute broadcaster struggled, describing the simulation as “eye-opening,” “isolating” and “extremely unpleasant.”

In addition to listening to the voices, the workshop also includes a one-hour recorded lecture of Deegan, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a teenager, explaining the experience of hearing voices and how people can respond to it.

To view Cooper’s experience with Hearing Distressing Voices and his interview with Deegan, visit http://ac360.blogs.cnn.com/2014/06/09/anderson-takes-part-in-an-experiment-to-help-understand-how-people-live-with-mental-illness/?hpt=ac_bn5.

For more information on Hearing Distressing Voices, visit https://www.patdeegan.com/pat-deegan/training/hearing-voices-training.

Wellness group provides non-traditional therapy for women

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Stairways Behavioral Health’s Assertive Community Treatment team – ACT—is living up to its acronymized name by helping a group of female clients actively improve their mental health by using a non-traditional series of hands-on therapy.

Fifteen women have had the opportunity to treat their illnesses in a holistic and casual setting by taking part in yoga, journaling and arts each week with the help of ACT team members. The program was designed for the group of female clients who had been resistant to traditional methods of therapy and had a history of trauma.

“Some of the female clients had been really struggling,” ACT supervisor Rochelle Youkers said. “We had been using traditional therapy with them but we were having crisis calls every week so we wanted to take a different approach.

“We got together and did some brainstorming and since we had staff with experience in exercise and diet as well as meditation, we thought this could be a good way to apply it.”

The group meets three times a week at BLOOM Collaborative beginning each Monday when clients participate in a mindful journaling session led by ACT peer specialist Stephanie Barto. On Wednesday, the group takes part in a yoga class taught by BLOOM yoga instructor Norine Gammon, while Friday is reserved for therapeutic arts sessions that Youkers and ACT mental health professional Deanna Ferraino lead.

The results have illustrated the effectiveness of the group meetings: among the clients who attend the groups, crisis calls have reduced, Youkers said.

Above all, the gatherings afford clients the opportunity to lower stress in a judgment-free environment and apply what they’ve learned to the rest of their lives.

“We socialize, talk about girl stuff,” Youkers said.

(Photos by Mark Fainstein)

Yoga Instructor Finds Peace at BLOOM

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Before each session, yoga instructor Norine Gammon makes certain that she and her class are centered—free of any distractions and concerns that may preoccupy their minds.

Since she began leading classes at BLOOM Collaborative in January, Norine, an instructor with more than two decades of experience, has experienced a greater sense of mindfulness in BLOOM’s yoga studio.

 “I’ve really seen a shift, even in myself, doing yoga in the studio,” Norine says. “It’s easy to get distracted at the gym; you hear music from Body Pump classes next door and people exercising. The BLOOM studio really helps you to center more.”

A quiet, tranquil yoga space is one feature unique to BLOOM that has proven to be a valuable asset to both Stairways Behavioral Health clients and non-clients alike.

Each Tuesday and Wednesday at 11:30 a.m., Norine can be found in this space leading classes intended to reduce stress and increase mindfulness among Stairways clients who suffer from severe mental illnesses and low self-esteem.

A practitioner for more than two decades who earned her teaching certification in 2007, Norine also teaches yoga and aerobics at Nautilus Fitness Center and Gannon University as well as at local high schools. She has extensive experience teaching yoga for therapeutic purposes, leading chair and gentle yoga classes for individuals with physical limitations.

In addition to her client classes, Norine teaches two classes open to the public at BLOOM: Barre — a strengthening movement class that integrates yoga, Pilates and ballet — each Tuesday night at 6 p.m. and a Thursday night Radiant Flow yoga that starts at 5:30 p.m.

Norine, 46, who is an accomplished endurance athlete, has competed in numerous marathons and triathlons. But she perhaps feels an even greater payoff when witnessing the progress a Stairways client makes in her yoga class.

“It’s so cool,” she says, “to be able to see people who can’t even stretch (themselves) out increase their flexibility and increase their mindfulness.”

Financial Education Program receives boost in form of grant

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Each time Hilda DeJesus turns the key to start her car or sets foot in her new kitchen, she is overcome with gratitude for having learned the skills that helped her achieve her dreams of financial stability.

Her story is not uncommon for individuals who have taken part in the Financial Education and Savings Program (FESP) at Stairways Behavioral Health. Since its inception in 2007, FESP has helped numerous people with mental illness reach their financial goals by teaching money management and savings strategy.

Hilda was one of the first clients to graduate from the program and used the money she saved to buy a car. She then utilized the skills she learned to achieve a long-term goal of purchasing a house, for which she recently remodeled the kitchen.

Now, the program is helping to ensure that more dreams like Hilda’s are fulfilled thanks to a charitable sponsorship from PNC Bank worth more than $10,000.

The Financial Education and Savings Program (FESP) is a 12-week course designed to promote responsible use of money and informed financial decisions.

Students are incentivized with the offer of dollar-for-dollar matches to those who graduate, identify a savings goal and reach $500 in savings through participation in the program. The grant secured through PNC will be used toward the matching amounts.

FESP is offered in the spring and fall during two-hour weekly sessions in a classroom format.

Class topics include understanding the meaning of a budget, income sources, document management, banking and credit. All students have a case manager to monitor how they manage personal finances.

Stairways established FESP to help mentally ill, mostly low-income individuals gain control over such an important part of their lives.

In all, 143 students have graduated from the program, 72 percent of whom were able to save, and in turn, received matched money totaling more than $98,000.

Stairways clients help bring holiday cheer to those in need

Thursday, December 11, 2014

This holiday season, some Stairways Behavioral Health clients spread some cheer to those in need by creating gift bags for homeless individuals at St. Patrick’s Haven and the Mercy Center for Women.

Clients who participated in “Thinking Wellness and Community” and “’Thoughtful’ Community Service,” two Psychiatric Rehabilitation classes at BLOOM Collaborative, worked on social and cognitive skills while creating gift bags for the men, women and children.

In all, the groups produced 50 hand-decorated gift bags. The bags included a scarf, socks, candy, toys and coloring books for kids, art supplies, toiletries, and a lip balm with a label that reads “You’re the balm. Be well.” Participants worked as a team to make the scarves, put together the coloring books, and choose the personal items. Each bag also included a greeting card addressed personally by a class member.

The classes, which were led by Psych Rehab staff Christine Linkie, Tina Loomis and Michelle Jaggi, charged clients with creating a service project for the holidays. Participants shared how meaningful it was for them to give back to the community.

The “Thinking Wellness and Community” class focused on cognitive skills—for example, memory, planning, and social perception.  Then, in the “’Thoughtful’ Community Service” class immediately afterward, participants practiced cognitive and social skills while working on the gift bags.

The Psych Rehab program offers classes each season at BLOOM aimed at developing skills, increasing engagement, and improving quality of life for Stairways clients.


The contents of men's, boys', girls' and women's gift bags assembled by Stairways clients

Exercise vital to wellness

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Exercise has long been linked to improved mood, greater self-esteem, increased mental functioning and a reduction in stress but new research indicates the benefits of physical activity could be even greater among children, particularly those with attention issues.

The nine-month study published in the October issue of the medical journal Pediatrics found that kids who took part in regular exercise showed an enhancement of cognitive performance and brain function. Improvements were seen in the areas of resisting distraction and maintaining focus, working memory as well as cognitive flexibility.

While the news of exercise’s value is hardly a shocking revelation to most—it’s happiness-inducing endorphins are an established fact—Donnelle Super, a therapist at Stairways Behavioral Health’s Child and Family Outpatient Clinic can attest to the positive impact activity has on kids. Super, an exercise enthusiast and local triathlete who also coaches a local elementary cross country team, said the difference with kids who exercise regularly is noticeable.

“I see with the kids I work with that it not only helps with reducing stress but it helps with their social skills and self-esteem,” she said. “Sometimes it’s hard for kids to get started on a program, but once they do, they seem to really like it.”

Super also sees exercise’s beneficial qualities extend to the adults she treats, who report greater socialization and reduced stress, sometimes to a visible degree.

“One woman walks up a hill for her exercise and socialization, another guy uses it to control his anger,” she said. “It’s hard to measure because mental health in general is hard to measure, but you can see improvements sometimes just by their physical appearance.”

While Super notes the qualitative nature of mental health and the effects of exercise, another study published in the October Journal of Abnormal Psychology produced evidence that kids who took part in a 12-week exercise program enjoyed better math and reading scores. The improvements were especially pronounced among children with signs of ADHD.

Even very light physical activities improve mood and cognitive performance by prompting the brain to release dopamine and serotonin in a manner similar to the way stimulant medications act.

As more research is discovered, more evidence of exercise’s benefits emerges that establishes a critical link between taking a jog, riding your bike or swimming a few laps and improved mental capacity and mood.

Stairways to hold second annual Tread on Stigma

Friday, September 05, 2014

Do your part to help stomp out the shame associated with mental illness by taking part in Stairways Behavioral Health’s second annual Tread on Stigma for Wellness Saturday, Sept. 27 at Presque Isle State Park.

Tread on Stigma is an untimed 5k run/walk for employees, clients and friends of Stairways aimed at addressing wellness, building comradery and as a way to raise awareness about the mental and physical illnesses that afflict the people we serve.

Participants can form a team, set a fundraising goal and raise money by procuring sponsorships. Registration is $15 per person, while kids 12 and under walk for free.

Registration for the walk will begin at 8 a.m. with the walk following at 9 a.m. at the Erie Runners’ Club Pavilion at Beach 1. Prizes will be awarded following the conclusion of the event.

The walk will support the Client Wellness Fund, which benefits Stairways’ clients in there wellness pursuits by helping purchase items such as gym memberships, sneakers and nutritional activities.

To register, please visit www.stairwaybh.org/walk.

Erie Gives 2014 approaching

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Remember Stairways Behavioral Health on Aug. 12!

Potential for change and growth lives within us all. Sometimes we need help to bring out that development and greater sense of personal fulfillment we all desire.

On August 12, Stairways Behavioral Health will need your help to make personal wellness a reality for all when it participates in the fourth annual Erie Gives, a day designated for philanthropic donations to non-profit organizations in Erie.

From 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., donors can visit www.eriegives.org or call 814-454-0843 to make a donation of $25 or more by using Visa, MasterCard and Discover cards. Stairways will then receive a prorated percentage of the $200,000 in matching funds contributed by the Erie Community Foundation, GE Transportation and Erie Insurance based on how much it collects in donations.

Stairways, which raised $5,580 for the Client Wellness fund in 2013, will again focus this year’s contributions toward its personal wellness efforts, which support individuals in their wellness initiatives by providing resources like nutritional activities, new sneakers and fitness memberships.

"Riding bikes, going to the Y and fishing with our kids are all things we love to do," said Kim Stucke, chief development officer at Stairways. "You can help make someone else have this special feeling by contributing to Stairways on Erie Gives." 

In keeping with our wellness initiatives, donations will also help fund programs at BLOOM Collaborative, 138 E. 26th St. 

BLOOM’s classes and experiences are dedicated to promoting growth and positive change—for individuals, groups and neighborhoods within Erie and surrounding communities. BLOOM offers services and programs meant to foster holistic health and well-being such as art, nutrition, gardening, yoga and meditation.

Improved well-being is the key to healthier people and a healthier community – and a cause Stairways Behavioral Health and BLOOM Collaborative are committed to achieving.

Visit online at www.BLOOMCollaborative.org for more information and remember us on Erie Gives Day, August 12. All donations to Stairways Behavioral Health will be used to expand wellness activities through BLOOM Collaborative.

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