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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