EVANSVILLE, Ind. (AP) — If there's one thing Lori Rivera wants you to know, it's that people can recover from mental illness.
Another is that mental illness is not especially rare.
Rivera, the PEACE Zone's program coordinator and latest winner of Mental Health America of Indiana's Heros in the Fight award, recited the goals as she strolled through Evansville's quaint and colorful PEACE Zone facility at 410 Mulberry St.
When Rivera became program coordinator a year ago, the PEACE Zone was just an idea and an empty office space. Today, it's an active gathering place for Evansville residents with mental illness, filled with member-created artwork and host of weekly peer support groups, the Evansville Courier & Press reported (http://bit.ly/1eMLhfM).
Through PEACE Zone, Rivera has begun a quiet campaign to educate the Evansville community about mental illness.
"There is a stigma about mental health issues," Rivera said. "A lot of people see it as a weakness. I know people who are terrified to tell their employers. But mental illness is a brain disorder, and the brain is part of the physical body."
Rivera knows this personally. In high school, she was diagnosed with depression. By her junior year of college her doctors determined she had bipolar disorder. After a long and deeply personal battle, Rivera says she has fully recovered from her mental disorder.
"I was very ill at one time," she said. "There's a misconception that people can never recover from mental health issues, but in fact with the right treatment and medication, it is possible to recover."
Rivera is open about her battle with — and recovery from — mental illness in the hope that it will help dispel stigma and misconceptions about mental illness in Evansville. Accomplishing that could make it easier for Evansville residents experiencing mental health issues to come forward and get help, she said.
Because there are many.
According the National Institute on Mental Health, more than 25 percent of Americans suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder. That means more than 30,000 Evansville residents could be experiencing a mental health issue at any given time.
"The most common are anxiety disorders," Rivera said.
A mental disorder disrupts brain function. Treatments vary and are extremely personal in design.
The PEACE Zone is not a clinical program. It stands for Peer Empowerment and Advocacy in Evansville, and its role is comparable to the role Alcohol Anonymous plays for recovering alcoholics, Rivera said.
"When you come here you don't feel so alone," Rivera said. "And it's good to hear others who have gone through the same struggles as you have and to see that they're doing well now and were able to recover. So it gives you a sense of hope, and a sense of community when you come here."
Beth Barchet, PEACE Zone's Director of Programs, started working with the Southwestern Behavioral Health Services to create a peer-recovery center in 2008.
Around that time the attitude toward mental health treatment had changed, she said. Before, agencies simply cared for people with mental disorders. But they began to realize they should instead help people recover.
It took years to find the funding, which eventually came from a grant from the Indiana Division of Mental Health and Addiction.
Once they had the funding and a facility, Barchet hired Rivera then took a step back.
"That was the hardest part," Barchet said. "Because it is peer driven, it had to be what the people wanted it to be, not what I wanted it to be. When we hired Lori we had nothing."
But that was a year ago. Today, besides than support groups and wellness classes, many PEACE Zone activities are centered around art.
Neither Rivera nor Barchet saw that coming.
"It's been found that a lot of individuals who struggle with mental health issues are very creative and artistic," Rivera said. "We have a very artistic group here."
So Rivera keeps the place stocked with art supplies. She imagines that as people come and go over the years, the PEACE Zone's atmosphere will change.
The PEACE Zone is free and open to anyone experiencing a mental health issue.
Information from: Evansville Courier & Press, http://www.courierpress.com