Parish nurse serves people with mental health issues

The best teachers don’t just tell students about their subjects; they show them and lead by example. For Ann C. Keeley, that means taking  her nursing students to Holy Comforter Church, where she volunteers as a certified parish nurse.

An Episcopal mission church  in Atlanta’s Grant Park, Holy Comforter operates the Friendship Center, a health and wellness day program for people  who have mental health issues  or other disabilities.

“When I take students, the experience is never the same, but it is always eye-opening,” said Keeley, RN, MN, PMHCNS-BC, LMFT, a clinical associate professor at Georgia Baptist College of Nursing of Mercer University. “One student told me that these were the kinds of people her mom told her to cross the street to avoid. After spending time with the clients here, students learn that they are different, but valuable. They have souls, like everyone, and they aren’t scary.”

Keeley has been involved  in this ministry for 15 years. After teaching courses about grief and loss for  Gwinnett Medical Center’s Faith Community Nursing program for many years, Keeley decided to complete the program herself six years ago.

“I realized that I wanted to become a certified parish nurse for Holy Comforter. This was a place where a nurse could make a difference,” she said. “It was something I wanted to do and felt like (it was) the right thing to do. I love it.”

As a psychiatric nurse, Keeley realized  she had found a special place.

“Families who have members with mental illness often think that the church will be a safe and welcoming place to come, but so often that isn’t the case,” Keeley said. “Mental illness is still a stigma. If someone has cancer, people chip in and help them. But when the illness is mental, people often run the other way.”

Holy Comforter didn’t. When shifting  demographics resulted in the loss  of many traditional members of  the church about 20 years ago, there was talk of closing it, Keeley explained. But when a group home for people with mental illness moved into the neighborhood, a priest from Holy Comforter invited them to the church. The Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta decided to stay in Grant Park and meet the needs of the people in its community. Today, about 60 percent of the church’s members have some form of  mental illness.

The Friendship Center’s day program is open  on Tuesdays and Thursdays. There’s a Wednesday night service/community dinner and Sunday morning worship. Volunteers drive buses to pick up 70 to 100 people from  personal care homes.

The social/recreational program includes prayer, breakfast and lunch, health screenings, education, counseling, and  crafts and activities. Participants  work in the church’s gardening program or take classes in painting, ceramics, woodworking or weaving.

“You wouldn’t think weaving would be the best choice for this population, but it’s a slow craft and some of our people have lots of patience,” Keeley said.

Sometimes other churches or  groups provide special outings, and one church’s members come regularly to perform “Saturday Night Live” skits at community dinners. “Everyone looks forward to those nights because they are just incredibly fun,” she said.

Health care services

Keeley also helps address particiants’ health issues. While she’s not allowed to give medications, Keeley and a certified nursing assistant volunteer to test blood-sugar levels, take blood pressure readings and conduct other screenings, using supplies donated from St. Joseph’s Mercy Care Services.

Sometimes Keeley  treats respiratory distress or panic attacks. When the symptoms are serious, she calls an ambulance and sends clients  to Grady Memorial Hospital for treatment.

Keeley and her nursing students often  give pedicures and manicures.

“We also provide a lot of health education. We’ve taught breast self-exam and how to take care of your heart,” she said. “Psychiatric medications can make people prone to Type 2 diabetes and constipation, so we dispense prune juice and talk about healthy diets.”

Although many of the clients live in dire situations and despite the fact that the life expectancy for people with mental illness averages about 20 years less than most people, Keeley sees transformation every day at the center.

“The sense of belonging that they get here is so important,” she said. “It’s a safe place where people who haven’t had much attention or support are included and respected. They find companionship, friendship and joy.”

Keeley can feel the difference when she walks onto the property.

“These folks are happy to see me and appreciate me. It’s a very affirming place and one where I’m reminded to simplify my life and let go of expectations. Parish nursing is all that I expected and more.”