You may not notice the Trillium Drop-In Center, tucked away in an office complex in Woodbridge, but the center is doing a lot of good for those with mental illness.
The center is celebrating its tenth anniversary as a non-profit that provides support services, recreation, and educational activities for individuals with mental illness.
“Our mission is to provide a stigma-free, stress-free atmosphere for mental health consumers, ages 18 and over. And we’re very careful about emotional and physical safety,” said Michelle Zahn, a facilitator for the center that started off as a client, before becoming a full-time staff member for the organization.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) between 1.1 million and 1.4 million Virginia residents live with a mental illness.
“It’s very important to say that we’re about reducing the isolation and alienation that happens sometimes when a person has mental illness, and feels like they’re the only one in the whole wide world, because they’re not,” said Zahn.
Zahn’s own journey began when she was diagnosed with bipolar as a teenager.
“I experienced a depression that lasted about four years…where I would only get up – I called it ‘Oprah time’. I would sleep until 4 p.m. everyday…and the only thing that I felt that I could accomplish was to make dinner for my husband…I had a friend…that brought me to Trillium and I would always sit up front. And I would only stay for about an hour, and emotional safety was everything to me because I was a person that had been isolated at home, you know, had not been around a lot of people,” said Zahn.
Robert Johnson, a veteran diagnosed with bipolar disorder, is another success story for Trillium, and works alongside Zahn as a facilitator.
“We offer a safe place for support. A place where…I can come and be myself. I’m around people that are just like me, so therefore they’re not judging me,” said Johnson.
Johnson talked about how he had a “perfect” life, and how his struggles with mental illness changed his path.
“I had a wife, two beautiful boys. We lived in a townhouse – each of us had our own car. I had a great job, and everything was perfect. Then the hospital visits started…I would take the medication for a little while and would feel better so ‘I’m good’…I was homeless, wifeless, carless. So, I kind of wandered around,” said Johnson.
Following a hospitalization, Johnson was connected to the center.
“There’s a corner on the other side of the building…and that’s where I felt safe. And I’d stay in my corner…the staff never pushed me…they just let me be me…and that there wasn’t anything ‘wrong’ with me. And I started to learn that I am not bipolar with schizoaffective features, it’s just something I have. I still am Robert Johnson, and they began to help me find Robert Johnson again,” said Johnson.
After the staff at Trillium helped to get him back on his feet, Johnson began working as a mentor to other clients at the drop-in center.
Johnson and Zahn spoke fondly about their experiences, and how they’ve had the chance to speak at a United Nations NGO conference and before the Virginia State Senate.
Spoke at United Nations NGO conference, speak before the State Senate
“They’ve propelled some of us to go to places that we never even thought of. Like I said, I mean, she had me speaking at the Senate…[they] actually put me in front of the Senate,” said Johnson.
Another way that Trillium is involved with the community is through Prince William’s Crisis Intervention Team – a collective of mental health professionals, first responders, and those that have a mental illness – in an attempt to work through best practices for helping individuals in crisis.
“We can speak more freely to the officers, and give them a better understanding of what’s actually happening when someone with mental illness is in crisis,” said Johnson.
While the center is funded through the county using state funds, the organization is consistently applying for grants and looking for donations to fund their programs.