DENVER — “There’s Bob, Phil, Jerry and Mickey,” said Jacob Livengood, pointing out fish named after members of the Grateful Dead. They are in a tank that is in his favorite room of a home he has lived in for the past year.
“This [room] is where the magic happens. This is where we process things, and we have multiple groups pretty much on a daily basis,” Livengood explained.
Livengood lives in what is known as a therapeutic community, which is a longer-term residential treatment center for people managing serious and persistent mental illness.
“My diagnosis is bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder,” Livengood said, adding that he was also experiencing psychosis and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder when he moved into Karis Community. “I was in four hospitals in the year before coming here. I was in four in-patient units and then I was in a day program at the last one.”
The power of a therapeutic community
Annie Wharton is the executive director of Karis Community. She said the organization does not discriminate or turn away any diagnosis, and people typically stay anywhere from six months to two years.
“We work with people who manage anything from depression, anxiety schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, and bipolar mood disorder. We also have people who are in recovery from substance use disorders as well as eating disorders, we run the gamut,” she explained.
Concerns about mental health and substance use have increased over the last few years because of the pandemic. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness 1 in 5 adults experience mental illness every year and 1 in 20 experience serious mental illness each year. Meanwhile, suicide is the leading cause of death for people aged 10 to 34.
Wharton said places like Karis Community are needed now more than ever.
“Our mission is providing that community for people to heal together, and that really is a tenet that we have here. That relationship is what heals. Intervention is great, therapy is amazing, and it’s part of the process, but that connection and shared experience that people have with one another are what make the biggest difference,” she explained.
Karis Community can house up to 15 residents; each person pays $655 a month. The idea is to eventually get people back into their communities, working jobs and living their lives. A typical day for them includes individual therapy and group therapy, as well as 24/7 access to staff members and volunteering.
Wharton said Karis Community started 46 years ago and is named after the Greek word for ‘grace.’
“It comes from this understanding that we all need a little grace from time to time no one goes through life unscathed and no one doesn’t go through a challenging season,” she said.
Without a therapeutic community, Livengood told Rocky Mountain PBS his fate would be much different.
“Most likely I would be dead. I was homeless before I got here,” he added saying that he now volunteers at a homeless shelter. “I get to see what chronic homelessness turns into and since I was in that situation, I don’t think I would have lasted very long. So, Karis has been a life saver for me.”
Livengood hopes sharing his journey openly might encourage others to seek help if they need it.
“I feel like just showing up and putting in the work; I never expected it to pay off like it has, but it’s transformed my life in so many ways. I feel like I have a renewed sense of life and I’m finding myself,” he said. “I was very lost for a long time, but I found myself and now I get to meet me.”
Dana Knowles is a multimedia journalist at Rocky Mountain PBS and can be reached at email@example.com.
Brian Willie is the content production manager at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Many Coloradans are struggling with mental health care and access as stresses of the world come more to the forefront of lives. To address the needs, people and organizations are trying different strategies to help our society one person at a time.
"Colorado Voices: Mental Wellness" premiers Thursday, September 22 at 7 p.m. on Rocky Mountain PBS or YouTube. You can see a preview below.