Fall 2004
Climbing Out of the Pit

How Bridgeport Hospital's REACH Adult Outpatient Program helped this 70-year-old Norwalk woman cope with depression.

Illness can be stressful-whether it's your own or a loved one's. Barbara Smethurst found that out the hard way. First, her husband suffered heat stroke while they were traveling in Italy. (Imagine the difficulties of dealing with a hospital stay in a foreign language!) Then, back at home, he was diagnosed with cancer. Next, Barbara herself needed surgery. And her husband went on to develop new health problems.

Coping with her husband's illnesses and his cancer treatments, while dealing with her own health problems, was too much for Barbara.

"Everything just came in on me," she says. "I was not sleeping or eating…I was constantly exhausted, unable to perform the simplest tasks."

Her physician diagnosed depression, and Barbara began seeing a counselor. At her advice, Barbara was admitted to the psychiatric unit of her local hospital twice for treatment of her depression. However, her physicians had difficulty finding the right medications and dosages for her. For a while, everything was worse, not better. In fact, she relapsed into deeper depression. Finally, after a third hospital stay, Barbara's doctors straightened out her medications, and she began feeling better. But when she left the hospital for the last time, she knew she still needed support.

"Depression is like being in a pit," Barbara says. "There's a light above your head, but you can't reach it."

For help in reaching that light, Barbara came to the REACH Adult Outpatient Program at Bridgeport Hospital. The REACH program offers a special Older Adult track that especially fit Barbara's needs.

The REACH Adult Outpatient program provides transitional, educational, and support care for those who have "graduated" from inpatient care or who need more than typical once-a-week outpatient care.

"Our three-times-a-week sessions last from 9:30 to noon, and include group and family therapy," explains Alison Witherbee, MSW, the leader for Barbara's group. "We monitor our patients' progress and help them keep their independence and return to their best level of ability as they recover from depression or other mental health problems."

In the REACH Adult Outpatient Program, Barbara found friendships with people of her own age. In group meetings, they shared their time and their experiences, thoughts, and feelings with each other. "Many of us had the same symptoms, but were at different levels in the healing process, so we could help each other to cope," Barbara says.

Group members frequently traded helpful hints. "One woman told me that when she wakes, she stands up and reminds herself, 'You have your eyes, your hearing, your life…' Performing that simple exercise did help me to feel better," Barbara adds.

The program also offered an art therapy group led by Lydia Mandell, ATR-BC, LPC (registered, board certified art therapist and licensed professional counselor). As an artist, Barbara found this group most helpful in expressing her feelings through drawings and other forms of art. There was also a weekly coping skills group in which patients sometimes watched videos on topics such as "Humoring Your Stress," or "Managing Grief." A weekly medication group, during which a physician answered questions and discussed side effects and progress related to patients' symptoms, was particularly reassuring for Barbara.

After four months, Barbara graduated from the program in July. She's ready to go back to the activities she used to love-exercise classes and swimming at the Darien YMCA, teaching art at a senior housing complex in Norwalk, and doing her own artwork-especially stitching samplers and working in pastels.

"It's been a long struggle every day, working at getting well," she says. "But I'm myself now."

Her advice to others who may find themselves in her shoes: "Accept that depression is an illness, and seek out help. Just tell yourself, 'I need help, and I want to get well.' That's the first step. And remember, it won't last forever. You will get better, as I did, with the help of REACH, through faith, hope, and the love of my family."

  For a brochure about the REACH Adult Program at Bridgeport Hospital, please call 888-357-2396.