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Program offers help for those suffering from mental illness

Ruth Billups 59 Antioch interacts with Riley therapy dog for Assertive Community Treatment Program. | Beth Kramer ~ Sun-Times Media

Ruth Billups, 59, of Antioch, interacts with Riley, the therapy dog for Assertive Community Treatment Program. | Beth Kramer ~ Sun-Times Media

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By the Numbers

1 in 4 adults in America have a diagnosable mental illness in a given year, or about 26 percent of the population

1 in 17 adults in America suffer from a serious mental illness in a given year, or about 6 percent of the population

45 percent of those with mental illnesses meet criteria for two or more mental disorders

Source: National Institute of Mental Health

Updated: August 19, 2013 1:41PM

GRAYSLAKE — A population exists within Lake County that is overlooked and under-served. Some of this population pose a danger to themselves or others. Some of this population, like Barbara of Fox Lake, would be homeless bag ladies if it wasn’t for Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) Program, said ACT Team Leader Jason Lenzi.

ACT is a Lake County Health Department Program working with the mentally-ill population. They work with clients like Barbara, 68, to provide treatment and programs allowing them to be productive members of society rather than being institutionalized.

(At her request, Barbara’s last name is being withheld to protect her privacy.)

“Hospitals stabilize an acute crisis and kick you out. We’re longer term treatment,” Lenzi said.

“Everybody out here is very passionate about working with people who don’t have advocates. They’re people who fall through the cracks.”

Many clients, like Barbara, are referrals from Lake County’s Mental Health Court. Barbara was referred to ACT eight years ago after she got into some trouble in Wauconda.

She called 9-1-1 about 100 times to report being harassed. Paranoia made her think the harassment was more serious than it was. Police found her with a .38-caliber gun and an expired Firearm Owner’s Identification Card.

Her mental issues made it difficult for her to hold down a job and afford a place to live. After her arrest, she was sent to Mental Health Court and sent to ACT.

She was put on medication, connected with therapy, took a job walking dogs and was found an apartment that she could afford.

“We do everything short of sleeping in their house with them. We really help with every aspect of their daily living,” said Dr. Zulima Hurtado, psychiatrist.

Although ACT does everything it can to assist its clients, finding housing for clients is a constant challenge.

Most are living on Social Security payments of about $700 per month — for rent, food and other expenses. Not all their clients are able to work and lack transportation, educational opportunities and programming during the daytime, Lenzi said.

“It truly does take a village, but we’re a small hut. We’ve helped keep them out of hospitals, but there’s a lot more that needs to be done in the community,” Hurtado said.

Ruth Billups, 59, of Antioch is among the clients who lives on Social Security. She did secretarial work for the state of Nevada before she decided to move to Lake County. When she first became a client at ACT nine years ago, she refused to take medication to treat her bipolar disorder and depression. She said she hid her medications and even buried them to avoid taking them. She was institutionalized off and on, most recently five years ago.

Billups had trouble holding down a job until St. Therese Hospital (now Vista Medical Center West) referred her to ACT.

“They have convinced me that medicine is a better way of life,” Billups said.

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