H Elliott Fives

Breakfast of Champions for Mental Health

by Alastair Bland Since he was just 20 years old, H Elliott Fives has been working to better the lives of the mentally ill. He began counseling a household of troubled adolescents in Philadelphia, then moved to Los Angeles in 1980 where he took a job with a local mental health hospital. Two-and-a-half years ago he began working part time at the Santa Barbara Psychiatric Health Facility (PHF), an institution for acutely troubled clients. In cooperation with the facility, Fives (whose first name is actually H, without the period) has been developing a schedule of activities aimed at reintroducing the mentally ill back into society.

His weekend program is called “Breakfast of Champions for Mental Health.” The name was born one morning at the facility last summer as Fives and several clients juggled ideas over a box of Wheaties. The cereal’s bold-faced motto caught their attention. “We thought about how athletes gain so much credit and applause and are considered champions and made into heroes. But the mentally ill face greater challenges every day than any athlete ever does.” The PHF houses as many as 16 patients at a time. These clients are temporary residents who suffer from such maladies as schizophrenia, major depression, bipolar disorder, or even a combination of several. Throughout the week, the clients meet with psychologists, social workers, and doctors, but the weekends consist of a bit more free time for constructive interaction. Fives is working to fill these hours with engaging activities aimed at speeding up each client’s rehabilitation process. Fives drives them in a nine-seat van to the bowling alley, restaurants, and cafés, helping reintroduce them to the challenges, stresses, and joys of life outside of the home.

Meanwhile, Fives understands that society may have concerns about mingling with the clients of PHF. “You know how the number-one fear is speaking in public? Well, I think number-two is fear of the mentally ill.” Fives says society’s stigmas and fears toward his clients may contribute to the lack of confidence and self-esteem in many mentally ill people.

“I want each of them to have the courage to stop thinking of themselves as outsiders and start seeing themselves as people who have been terrifically challenged by life. The goal is to bring them to the highest level of health, function, and independence, and my mission is to think up as many creative ways of doing that as possible.” So far, Fives has organized esteem-boosting talent shows and group discussions among the clients as well as taken them out to eat, on trips to the beach, to the park, and to Trader Joe’s to sample good food. The aim of these activities is to instill the confidence and the competence necessary to function healthfully in society.

“Isn’t the goal in life to be able to function the best we can with all that we have?” proposes Fives. “I just wonder what else these people could be capable of if they had more understanding from the world.”

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