Nine months ago, Evan Spaeth joined Program of Assertive Community Treatment (PACT) Team 1 as a Mental Health Peer Advocate. The 11-member team provides community-based integrated rehabilitation, treatment and support to 75 individuals diagnosed with serious mental illnesses in Mercer County.
Evan’s journey with mental illness began at 11 years old when he began inflicting harm upon himself. “I was hospitalized many, many times,” he recalled. As a young adult, he spent two years in Trenton Psychiatric Hospital (TPH). “They had to protect me from myself,” he said. “I wish I had this kind of a program when I was a kid.” In 1993, two weeks after he had been released from TPH, Evan committed a crime. “I hurt someone, and I did 26 years in prison for it.”
It is not lost on Evan that the pain he inflicted during the incident and the pain he suffered during incarceration might have been avoided if he had access to the care a person needs when they are released from a psychiatric facility. Catholic Charities operates four PACT teams in Mercer and Burlington counties. Members provide direct services to people who have been hospitalized in the past and are at risk of returning to an institutional setting. The team supplies psychiatric medical intervention, medication management, nursing, counseling, vocational aid and case management services. Every client gets an in-person visit at least once a week. Some clients are seen daily, some are seen two or three times a week. Support from the team is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year through an on-call system.
Helping Others Manage Mental Illness
As a peer advocate, Evan likes being able to share the tools he uses to manage his mental illness with the people he serves. “Sometimes I can say, ‘I’ve been down that road and I used this or this.’ Not every tool will work for everybody, but I give them samples of things they might try,” he said. Evan realizes not everyone wants to know or needs to know his story. “I’m a peer advocate. That says it. I’ve been diagnosed and sometimes we just leave it there.”
Evan enjoys connecting with clients. Recently, he was driving a client to a medical appointment and the two were able to talk. “It was unusual for him. We didn’t get too deep, but it was good to have him engage. I feel like if he feels comfortable, in the future he’ll ask if he needs help.”
The impact of his work is not always obvious. Evan says sometimes it is a tiny tweak or a little change that lets him know progress is being made. “In a team meeting I might report that I saw a client and they smiled, or they said respectful things. Then I know we’ve made a crack in the wall they’ve built up around them. And if we can make a crack, one day maybe we’ll be able to help them chop that wall down.”
The Perfect Fit
“It took a long time to find Evan,” said Stacie Ruloff, Supervisor of PACT Team 1. The team spent over a year trying to fill the vacancy. “We interviewed so many candidates for the position.” She explained that the Peer Advocate on a PACT Team is a very special role. “Once we met Evan, we knew he was the one. He was the puzzle piece that fit. He had that certain je ne sais quoi we were searching for.” She said all 10 members of the team came to an immediate agreement about getting Evan on board.
“Everyone has been so patient with me. This is my first real job ever. When I got here, I didn’t know how to use a computer. I keep having to ask for help. But my co-workers don’t get mad or frustrated with me. They just explain it again. It is because of my co-workers and my supervisors that I am able to do this job,” he said. “The whole team is awesome. They are like family.”
Evan is open about his mental illness and not afraid to discuss it with people who will benefit from his experiences. That includes the clients he works with and a wider audience as well. He has regularly scheduled speaking engagements at the Ann Klein Forensic Center in Trenton. Sometimes he speaks to the administrative staff and nurses; his talk has become a part of the officer training program too. Sometimes he speaks to the patients. “I tell them my story and it gives them hope. There is life outside of Ann Klein.”
Read more about the PACT Teams here: https://www.catholiccharitiestrenton.org/about/inspiring-stories/meet-our-pact-teams/
Catholic Charities offers a variety of services for individuals who have mental health issues. If you or someone you know needs help, call (800) 360–7711.
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