SSCOPE was invited to talk about our program and purpose at the October 20th regular service by the Unitarian congregation on Wellington Crescent. We gratefully accepted the invitation.
Bob Rempel, Executive Director, brought thanks from the over 200 employee members with a mental health disability that SSCOPE serves with both casual and part-time employment, and thanked the Unitarian Church for this ongoing partnership with SSCOPE. The church has begun holding regular drives for SSCOPE’s Treasures Thrift Store. He opened the door to much more in the future, for example such as playing a leading role in our Christmas fundraising and Christmas lunch for members. He also introduced Judy Ransome, who was representing the SSCOPE employee members and then he introduced SSCOPE’s Operations Supervisor, Marvin Thiessen, whose pastoral and theological background, prior to joining SSCOPE two years ago in a senior managerial role, made bringing the following message to the 150 Unitarian Church members in attendance.
Eyes and hearts were opened, it appeared, and there was lots of discussion with church members later.
“SSCOPE AND MENTAL ILLNESS
Some of you will recall the story line of the movie, “A Beautiful Mind.” Some of you won’t. The story of the movie relates to the life of many of the people that work at Sscope and I want to use it to help you begin to understand their situation in life. In the movie, which is based on a real life story, the brilliant young mathematician, John Nash, enters Princeton University as a graduate student. He is too intelligent to enjoy class so he skips classes frequently and is busy performing calculations in all kinds of weird places, developing his theories. John eventually develops a brilliant hypothesis for an economic theory and is seen as a rising star in the math world. Then, in the early 1950’s, the CIA comes knocking. One of its agents introduces him to a secret government project that has catching Russian spies as its goal. Nash’s gifts in numbers and codes are to be beneficial in catching these spies.
The movie portrays Nash’s encounters with the shadowy spy world in convincing ways and we view Nash living a risky, dangerous life working with the CIA’s project. And then we discover that much or all of the scenario in the spy world is fictitious. The danger and suspense is only in Nash’s mind. Nash’s beautiful mind is descending into madness and his grip on reality is fading. His wife assists him in obtaining psychiatric help. That’s painful for us to watch. Nash goes from being a brilliant, energetic scientist to being a dull, nearly senseless shell of a man due to the psychiatric drugs and shock treatments. One reviewer described it as Nash “being locked in a mind that works brilliantly yet won’t let him see things normally.” (www.imbd.com) Nash begins to realize that he can’t go on living a life where his mind isn’t allowed to work and with great self-discipline and persistence, he learns to deny the delusions that seem so real to him and to resume productive work. As we watch the movie, we are drawn into the agony of torment he experiences as he tries to sort out what is real and what is fictitious in his mind. We also understand the very real despair of having psychiatric drugs dull his mind and energy. We begin to feel with the experiences of one who suffers schizophrenia.
I tell you that story because it gives us a handle on how many of the people that work at Sscope experience life. A large percentage of the people that are our worker-members at Sscope suffer with schizophrenia. John Nash fought psychiatric drugs and managed to live without them. Many of our worker-members need to be on those drugs. They, like John Nash, are imprisoned in minds that often would work with intelligence but have to be dulled and suppressed by drugs because their minds won’t allow them to see things for how they really are. I should interject that I do not speak as a medical professional or with much research behind me in this field. I speak as one who works side by side with people who live with mental illness on a daily basis and sometimes hears their experience. Not long ago, one of our workers who has recently been hospitalized for a stretch of time shared some of his experiences with me. He told of delusions of hearing when he was convinced he was hearing the screech of Styrofoam being scratched when there was no noise of that sort around him. This irritated him tremendously. We might think that this seems unremarkable but when he realizes that his mind tells him clearly that he is hearing this annoying noise when there is no such noise, he is quite distressed. The same worker told me about walking the streets of the West End where he lives and being convinced that he sees houses that were not there the day before. Again, we may think this unremarkable. We who like to think that our brains function normally sometimes find ourselves in familiar places seeing things we feel like we haven’t seen before. But there’s a difference. This Sscope worker’s mind tells him this house wasn’t there the day before. The lot was empty the last time he walked there. He knows that can’t be true but that’s what his mind tells him. He is distressed because he can’t trust his mind.
Another Sscope worker-member told me recently about his tactile delusions. He finds himself convinced that he is being touched undesirably but it’s not true. There is no one touching him. But the sense is so real that he can become very agitated. He has had trouble when he has lived on his own in rented quarters because his agitation can result in him becoming very vocal. His neighbours have been afraid when they have observed his agitated yells and haven’t wanted him around. He now lives with his parents and wishes he could have a more normal adult life.
Other worker-members tell me sometimes about the voices they hear in their heads. They tell me that the voices are very real to them. My impression is that the voices often denigrate them and make them feel inferior. Sometimes they also give instructions to do things. In those situations it’s a challenge for our worker-members to not listen to those voices.
Because of those voices and delusions, many of our people have been hospitalized, have experienced considerable experimentation with anti-psychotic drugs and now live, needing to take anti-psychotic drugs to cope with their mental reality. While the anti-psychotic drugs usually diminish the delusions and voices, they have fairly universal side effects that are not very enjoyable for those who take them. They often result in weight gain and they usually seem to slow down both the physical and mental processes employed by the people taking them. They usually cause the people taking them to sleep abnormally long hours.
This reality creates great difficulty for these men and women when they desire to live normally and work in the normal workforce. It’s hard for them to maintain regular work due to the things I’ve described. Their lives just don’t go smoothly and happily in the way that we who don’t live with their reality would usually describe smoothness and happiness.
We all wish that our lives on earth would go smoothly and happily. The people who enjoy hardship and difficulty in life are few and far between. They may exist but I would guess that everyone gathered here this morning would like to be able to cruise through life with comfort and pleasantness. That may be what we desire but life frequently doesn’t work that way. It is probably correct to say that life usually doesn’t work that way. We have to learn to live with lives that are less than perfect and leave much to be desired at times.
So what does a person do when life is so difficult? Some people find no recourse but to slide into a bitter, angry and depressive state. Other people manage to look ahead with some kind of hope for the future. Some of us find strength in our faith in God and experience God’s comforting and enabling presence as we live through difficult times with hope. When I look at the people afflicted with serious mental illness who work at Sscope, I am often impressed with how they accept their situation with grace and courage and then use the opportunities they receive at Sscope to make their lives a little better.
Over twenty years ago a consortium of people met in Winnipeg to flesh out an idea to create an organization that would provide people with serious mental health issues with casual employment opportunities. And Sscope was born. Today we continue with the main focus of procuring and overseeing casual work opportunities for the people we have accepted into our program. Almost all of them suffer with significant mental illness. I’ve focused our thoughts on those struggling with schizophrenia but we also have member-workers who suffer from bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders and compulsive behaviours, all to the degree that they are challenged to maintain regular jobs. Sscope, as a social enterprise, has built a business that does primarily lawn care and yard work in the spring, summer and fall and then does snow clearing during the winter months. We also tackle all kinds of hauling and moving jobs and are willing to do just about anything in the unskilled labour field.
Our worker-members go out on a crew with a supervisor and work together to complete their jobs for their shift. Our worker-members generally work half-day shifts and do so once or twice a week. This provides them with extra income above their Employment and Income Assistance or Canada Pension Plan Disability support and enables them to live a little more comfortably while also providing them with meaning in life.
If I ask our worker-members if Sscope is important to them, the response is almost always very positive. They value a work environment where their struggle is understood reasonably well. They value the extra income. They value something constructive and meaningful to do. They value learning some new skills. I asked a few of our worker-members recently what they would do if Sscope ceased to exist. They looked at me a little blankly. I wondered if they understood my question but that wasn’t it. They simply couldn’t imagine living without the opportunity to work at Sscope. They said that Sscope would never cease. We would go on finding work for them and, through that, assisting them with their lives. They communicate that they are very thankful that Sscope exists to provide them with the opportunities that it does. Without being entirely aware of the support that Sscope receives from a variety of sources in Winnipeg, they are thankful that Sscope is able to continue to operate.
With those phrases, I’ve made a leap toward gratitude, your church’s theme for the month. We all have much to be grateful for. I had us think about how we respond when life doesn’t go smoothly earlier. Biblical teaching calls us to be people of gratitude even when life isn’t smooth or particularly happy. I often think I see that in our member-workers. Most of us have very smooth and happy lives in comparison. How grateful are we? And what do we do with our lives when we recognize that we have much for which to be grateful? I think of the biblical writer, Paul, encouraging his readers in the city of Corinth to choose to live generously in the light of their gratitude in the ninth chapter of his second letter to them and I think that that kind of response enables us to be a part of making our world a better place. We recognize our reasons for gratitude and we choose to live generously in response in order to bless others in our lives.
I include those thoughts because we at Sscope want to thank your congregation for the various ways you have found to help us in continuing Sscope’s mission. And we invite you to continue to think of what we do for the people of Winnipeg who live with significant mental health issues as you think about how to live generously. We appreciate the opportunity to present our purpose at Sscope and what we do and will be available to answer more questions after the service.”
An email from a Church organizer later thanked SSCOPE as follows:
Well, Marvin & Bob,
You blew them away! What a wonderful presentation. Thank you so much for joining us last Sunday and presenting to us the good work of SSCOPE.
I personally could not have been more pleased, both for your excellent message, and how receptive our congregation was to your message. You could hear a pin drop during both your presentations. Gentlemen, you sure know how to sell your product – from the heart, which demonstrated just how passionate you are about the work you do within SSCOPE.
Our congregation will certainly continue to partner with SSCOPE. I see that our Chair of Properties already has plans to hire some of your staff to clear our property of leaves. How wonderful.
Another of our members spoke to me of his wish to work with your organization. And there was no shortage of individuals who spoke with you and took much of the literature away with them, after church. Our annual Yard Sale unsold goods may once again be sent your way, and I’m sure that our “We Want the Shirt off Your Back” clothing drives will continue.
I heard from another member, that you are in need of furniture. Certainly, we sell a good lot of the used furniture we get, in our own sales, but we will keep your Thrift Shop in mind.
All round, it was a good Sunday, and a pleasure to have you join with us. I hope that you were pleased with the exposure we were able to afford your wonderful organization, and felt welcomed into our congregation.
We will be in touch.
With sincerest appreciation,
SSCOPE, welcomes many more active supportive partnerships and support from churches and other groups of all kinds and all faiths, such as the one we have with this Unitarian congregation. We are most grateful to them to the way they’ve opened their arms to our members.