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News Photo by Darby Hinkley
Bay View Center member Laura Smith sits in the garden behind Bay View Center. She talks about her mental health issues and how people at the center have helped her throughout her journey, and even saved her life.

ALPENA — It may look like any other building, but to many in our community, Bay View Center is home.

“We’re like a family,” said Laura Smith, who has been a member at Bay View Center for about four years.

Like all the other members and staff, Smith has been diagnosed with a mental health condition, but that doesn’t stop her from having fun and helping others as much as she can. She is an active member at the center, and an emeritus board member, which means she previously served on the center’s board of directors.

“This is a place where people care, number one, and where you are accepted for who you are,” Smith said. “You don’t have to put on the mask to be what you think that people want you to be. You can be you.”

The center is a judgment-free place where like-minded people can gather and socialize, participate in group activities such as crafts, wellness groups, sewing, games, Bible study, writers’ group and more. Or they can just sit and read a book in the quiet room. And, if they find themselves in crisis, they know exactly where to go for help.

News Photo by Darby Hinkley
A sign hangs on the wall of the common room at Bay View Center.

Friday from noon to 4 p.m., Bay View Center is opening its doors to the public to celebrate its 10th anniversary. A presentation will be held at 1 p.m., and refreshments and tours will be available.

“We’re a peer-run organization,” said Bay View Center Executive Director Jill Busha.

She said statistics show that success rates increase dramatically when you add in peer-to-peer interaction and support.

“You know that everyone here, at some point in time in their life, has gone through what you’re going through,” Smith said.

Busha said often, those with mental health conditions are stripped of their dignity when the ability to make decisions is taken away from them.

News Photo by Darby Hinkley
A Circle of Wellness diagram hangs on the wall in the hallway at Bay View Center.

“We rehumanize people here,” she said. “That’s what we do. We allow them their lives back.”

Having a mental health condition does not have to hold you back from success, and Smith is a great example of that. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 32, Smith has found the right combination of medications to keep her feeling stable without taking away her kind and cheerful personality. Smith is now 43.

A mental health diagnosis comes with challenges, but just being diagnosed is a relief for many people, because then they can properly address the issue. Some people benefit from medication, therapy, and other healthy self-care activities that relieve stress, such as exercising or painting.

Everyone’s mental health journey is unique, and even people diagnosed with the same condition can present it in different ways. For example, Smith’s bipolar disorder had her feeling way down, even suicidal, when she was off the medication. On the other hand, Bay View Center Assistant Director Eileen Tank, diagnosed with bipolar at age 49, said her condition rarely presented itself because she would internalize her feelings to the point of “freezing up.”

“I would isolate,” Tank said. “I think it’s different with everybody.”

She would stay busy, but then the stress built up in her life, and she started to not be able to sleep.

“So, that’s how it manifested in me,” Tank said. “You know how it’s always ‘Fight, Flight, or Freeze?’ Well, I would freeze … but I was flight, too, because anytime there was conflict, I would go away from it.”

Tank was the interim director from April 2020 until August 2021, when Busha took the helm.

Tank said she has seen such a dramatic improvement in Smith’s overall health since she has gotten on the right medication for her.

“We have our Laura back,” Tank said.

Smith recalled some of the darkest times in her life, when she reached out to Tank at the center.

“You saved my life, twice,” Smith told Tank. “You did.”

Smith said she was thinking about suicide, but she stopped into Bay View Center, and Tank’s “caring face” stopped her from hurting herself.

“People don’t realize what we go through, living with a diagnosis like that,” Tank said.

Smith, Tank and Busha want to help lessen the stigma surrounding mental health issues. Talking about it openly is a big part of that, as is accepting a mental health condition as a treatable condition, just like any other health issue.

“The stigma is there, but I think our world is really changing, in that respect,” Tank said. “I think more people are realizing that they’re connected to someone who may be struggling.”

She added that “it’s not a weakness” to ask for help. “It’s a strength.”

Smith added that 75% of addicts struggle with mental health conditions, so they self-medicate with drugs or alcohol, which is not healthy.

As a person in recovery, Busha is seeking to assist more people who struggle with addictions, as well as those with mental health conditions.

“Mental health ebbs and flows,” Busha said. “The drop-in centers in Michigan served 15,000 people, at 42 centers, this past year.”

About Bay View Center

Bay View Center officially opened on Dec. 10, 2010, so they are actually in their 11th year, but they were unable to hold an open house during 2020, so they are celebrating their 10th anniversary now.

Judy Hutchens and Roger Boston heard a presentation about drop-in centers at a conference, and they agreed Alpena needed a drop-in center.

Boston realized the need for the center because his girlfriend, who was diagnosed with a mental health condition, had gone without respite for over 10 years, for lack of a place to go, Busha explained.

At that time, Hutchens was the current president of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) and a board member of Community Mental Health of Northeast Michigan. At that time, Prudence Arthur was very involved with NAMI. Tony White and Kathy Meske, both from CMH, suggested the current location at 710 N. 2nd Ave., which used to be the Dick’s Toys building. Andy Smigelski offered to rent a portion of his building to Bay View Center. Tim Grey and Alan McFalda were also instrumental in opening the center, Tank wrote in the Fall 2021 Bay View Bugler, which is the center’s newsletter.

The center’s main funding source is through Michigan Medicaid, contracted by Community Mental Health.

“They have been there for us, to bill for us, and to support us with our goals,” Tank wrote in the newsletter. “We actively work on grants through the Community Foundation for Northeast Michigan, and other sources of grants.”

She said generous community members and businesses also donate to the center, and MidMichigan Medical Center-Alpena is their main source of funding for their wellness groups.

Call Bay View Center at 989-340-0955.

September is National Suicide Prevention Month, and October is National Depression and Mental Health Screening Month. October 10 is World Mental Health Day.

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