Spiess finds vocation, healing working in mental health field
It's Tuesday night and Ginger Spiess can't stop smiling when she talks about the upcoming holiday party at the Outreach Center. It's the community's response that makes her so happy.
"It's just been a HUGE outpouring of donations," said Spiess, pointing to a stack of wrapped gifts from a local church ready for Thursday's party. "About 45 people had wishes granted and in-kind donations [of gift cards for movie tickets, restaurants, hair cuts, bus tickets, massages and even a night's stay at a hotel] have just poured in."
This is the second year the drop-in center in the heart of Cloquet - open to all, but with a special focus on those with mental health issues - solicited "grant a wish" requests from adults served by the center. After just one year, the party has outgrown the Outreach Center and was moved to Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Cloquet.
"I can't help but just enjoy watching. This week I'm just flying," Spiess said from her tiny shared cubicle in the Human Development Center, a place she says she comes to write reports and then leave. Her office, she added, is "the community."
Spiess has an incredible passion for her job - she is the Outreach Center director but the bulk of her time is spent working one-on-one with people who are trying to recover from mental illness - an attitude that is especially amazing when one hears the story of her childhood.
It's a story of a person who - rather than trying to hide a family history of mental illness - chose to speak out in the hopes that others would choose treatment and maybe live to see their grandchildren grow up, something her mother didn't get to do.
Growing up with mental illness
After two years of severe depression, her mother committed suicide when Spiess was 12 years old.
If her story or face seems familiar, that's because Spiess talked about her mother's mental illness and how it affected her family in the documentary film, "Look It in the Eye," released last year by the Human Development Center and filmed by Dan Woods.
Only 26 minutes long, the film switches back and forth between Tani Hemmila's story of post-partum depression that spiraled into something more and Ginger's story of growing up with a mother who was most likely bipolar, but never diagnosed and never successfully treated.
"Carlton County is known for having one of the highest rates of completed suicides," Spiess said. "That's not something I want us to be known for. I decided I needed to speak out."
When her mother died, it was the early 1970s. Treatment options were primitive, by today's standards. Spiess describes her early memories of her mother as a lively person who she remembers gardening, cleaning house, making root beer and keeping the kids in order. Then, when Ginger was 9, the entire family was in a car accident that left her mother with a painful neck injury.
She was never the same.
"She got on a lot of pain medications and the depression took over from that point on," said Spiess, noting that pain and depression often go hand-in-hand. "During the depressed years, she was very withdrawn."
The film recreates a suppertime scene from those years, with Spiess' mother weeping and leaving the table. As she walks away, the kids begin to blame each other for "setting her off."
"As a family, you didn't talk about it and we didn't understand what was going on," Spiess says in the movie, going on to describe how the day her mother died was just another day.
"She wasn't happy, she was frustrated that day, and she just left us [something she did frequently during her depression]," Spiess said. "We just sat there and talked for awhile, and then we started looking for her but we thought she'd just taken off again."
In the movie Spiess asks her father if he'd looked for the gun. The next scene shows a row of somber children and their tearful father at her mother's funeral. (Find out more about the movie at www.lookitintheeye.org.)
As a girl and young woman, Spiess said she wanted nothing to do with mental illness. She simply wanted to get married, live a healthy life and have children.
Then she got the only decently paid job she could find living near Kettle River, working at the Moose Lake State Hospital, then a residential treatment center for people with mental illness or mental disabilities.
Finding a vocation
Spiess worked two years on the DD (developmentally disabled) ward, and then she was transferred to the psycho-geriatric ward, in which patients might be any age but functioned mentally at a geriatric level, for example, because of a brain injury.
"Wow, that was my thing," said Spiess. "I saw people like my mom, people I really ended up caring about, people I had a heart for. I wasn't satisfied with just doing what I needed to do. I became involved in recreation, in getting people out and about. [Moose Lake] was a difficult place to work, but I ended up liking it a lot."
After working at the state hospital for 12 years, Spiess took a job at the Five County Mental Health Center in Braham. These were the early days of what became known as community support, where the goal was to get people with mental illness the support they needed in their homes instead of treating them in an institution.
"It was like heaven; it was like hope; it was like ice cream," said Spiess with her trademark smile. "I'd seen it from the institutional side and from that side, we thought we were amazing. But I never realized there was a push to get people the treatment they needed in the community, in their homes. Suddenly I was visiting people in homes that were like my home growing up.
"I've never stopped getting excited about it."
Now known as adult mental rehabilitation services, Spiess is still going into people's homes, meeting them at coffee shops or visiting at the Outreach Center and helping them set goals to live independently and recover from their mental illness.
"It's my job to get people to the point where they don't need me anymore," Spiess said. "Sure, they may call me back for a tune up in a few years, that's OK. I'm here."
A healing process
Although she made "Look It in the Eye" because she wanted people to talk more openly about mental illness, to "start a dialogue," making the documentary film had an unexpected and happy outcome for Spiess, two of her sisters - Jeannine Nordin and Cecal Anderson - and their father, Robert Anderson.
"It was a little uncomfortable having the conversation [about making the movie] with my dad and two sisters, but it was important to me that I not harm the family by telling stories," she explained. "The thing about suicide is people don't know what to do with it once it's there. There's so much stuff left
Once they started having the conversation, things started coming out. One of her sisters, who wasn't home the day their mother died, said she had always thought something big had happened that day, something in particular that caused their mother to take her own life. Thinking that, she'd been angry with her family since then.
But it wasn't true. Nothing out of the ordinary occurred that day, Spiess said.
Sharing memories of their mother and that terrible day might not have been comfortable, but it was definitely emotionally freeing.
"There was really a lot of healing between my two sisters, my dad and myself," Spiess said. "Even my mom's family started having a
It's a conversation that's ongoing for all of them. Not only is it her job, but Spiess raised her children to know the signs of mental illness and, most importantly, to know that they should seek treatment if they think they are showing symptoms. Although there is no diagnosis of bipolar disorder in her family, Spiess said her daughter - who also appears in "Look It in the Eye," has a diagnosis of major depression with anxiety.
And that's OK, because she's been very proactive about treatment. Because of that, Spiess said, her daughter will never experience the lows that she might have [provided she continues treatment, which she intends to do].
"She speaks out about the issue of mental health and recovery," said Spiess, noting that her daughter is going for her master's degree in family and marriage therapy. "She's a chip off the old block."
I have a dream
Although treatment for mental illness has improved tremendously since the early 1970s when her mother had bipolar disorder - a diagnosis Spiess makes after 30 years in the field, not one the doctors came up with 40 years ago - there is still some stigma associated with having a mental illness.
Spiess would like to completely get rid of that stigma.
"There is no stigma associated with getting cancer, why should there be a stigma associated with mental illness?" she asked. "It's my understanding that three out of every five people will have to be treated for a depression in their lifetime."
So she speaks out. She talks about mental illness. She talks about how her own life was affected. She talks to anyone who wants to talk to her about overcoming mental illness.
And she invites people to come for lunch or just drop by the Outreach Center, located in a beautiful (new in 2004) building on 10th Street half a block off Cloquet Avenue. The more who come, the
"If I can get a bunch of people from the community to stop in, No. 1, it would say the community cares. The businesses care, the churches care, the people care. And second, people would start not even considering [the stigma] because they will not be able to tell who has a mental illness and who doesn't. It will break that stigma.
"I know there are people who would love to come here but they are afraid of how it would look or appear. That's the reality, the stigma is still there."
Yes, things are getting better - just not fast enough for the energetic Spiess, who wants the six children she and her husband share and 17 grandchildren to grow up in an even better world, one where mental illness is not something to be ashamed of, it's simply something to treat and control or make better, like any other disease.
Make happy memories
For those with unhappy memories of the holiday season, Spiess advises a deliberate approach to making new memories.
"The holidays can be a tough time," Spiess said, "so start a new tradition. Watch a family movie. Then you can remember that the next year and build on that. ... And if you need to get help, get help."
The mental health worker tries to take her own advice as much as possible. She has struggled with depression, and she worries about burnout. Although she's a dynamo at work and is very busy helping her son, his wife and children while his wife battles non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, Spiess said she tries to take care of herself. She starts and ends her days "in a quiet place" and said she tries to get outside. Her spiritual beliefs are also very important to her.
"As a kid, my favorite places to go were the woods and the river," she said. "I love to be outside. I love old rustic cabins, time in the woods. My favorite moment this summer was sitting in a blueberry patch by myself."