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Helping people with mental illness meet like-minded partners

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Elizabeth and James of Ponca City, Okla., met through No Longer Lonely, an Internet dating service for people with mental illness. They plan to marry in August. (Ryan Diamond/CNS)

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Elizabeth and James of Ponca City, Okla., met through No Longer Lonely, an Internet dating service for people with mental illness. They plan to marry in August. (Ryan Diamond / CNS)

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Elizabeth and James of Ponca City, Okla., met through No Longer Lonely, an Internet dating service for people with mental illness. They plan to marry in August. (Ryan Diamond / CNS)

The idea was to have fun, but David, 32, wasn’t feeling very relaxed. The notion of meeting a group of like-minded people at the Herrill Lanes Bowling Alley in Long Island, N.Y., provoked an attack of obsessive compulsive behavior.

As he anxiously waited for his turn, David looked at his watch every few seconds and avoided eye contact with the others. When his bowling ball went in to the gutter, he started stuttering and looked flustered.

In stepped Sally and Doug, a married couple in their 40s with bipolar disorder. They knew how David felt and encouraged him to rejoin the circle.

“I was having difficulty meeting people,” David said. But then he joined the Friendship Network, a social group for the mentally ill. “They’ve encouraged me to socialize, and now I’ve made friends.”

The things that so many people take for granted--forming acquaintances, saying hello to a stranger, finding romance--can be excruciating for people suffering from mental illnesses. Intimate relationships, which can be difficult even for the well-adjusted, are particularly challenging for people who suffer from delusions, radical mood swings and such severe depression that it can be difficult to leave the house.

The early 1970s marked a dark time for the many psychiatric patients who were released from state hospitals without the means to meet people like themselves. But over the last few years several organizations have sprung up to help the mentally ill meet friends and lovers. The groups
including the Friendship Network, No Longer Lonely and Project Return the Next Step -- are a lifeline for people enduring the isolation of mental illness.

“These opportunities for socialization are very important,” said Carole Lieberman, who teaches psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. “The mentally ill have needs for friendship and love like we all do.”

The Friendship Network is one of the oldest social groups for the mentally ill. Over the last 15 years the organization has perfected its technique under the leadership of its energetic founder, Alice Cohen, 78, whose son has struggled with mental illness. She plays matchmaker to the 200 members, coaching them on hygiene, setting up dates and then staying on call night and day to troubleshoot problems.

The organization screens members carefully with long interviews and doctor’s notes verifying therapy compliance and a work record. Cohen also runs workshops in which members role-play to build social skills.

Once accepted into the network, though, the prospect of intimacy can present agonizing challenges. Cohen recalls one anxious soul who called 10 times before a date. Another woman became so wracked with anxiety that she left her would-be companion sitting alone in a diner.

Fear of closeness can even take the form of hallucinations, Lieberman said. “Let’s say someone was raised to believe you can’t have sex before marriage,” she said. “The average person may be burdened by guilt, while a mentally ill person might actually wake up that night waiting for Satan to take them to hell.”

A further hurdle for people with schizophrenia is that they often don't notice social signs, said Pam Butler, a psychologist at the Nathan Kline Institute. She conducted studies in which people with schizophrenia tried to identify the emotions in voice recordings and pictures of faces. Some participants were unable to identify when people were expressing sadness, happiness, fear or anger.

“Suppose you’re going out on a blind date or a job interview, you’re not going to pick up on social cues," Butler said. "It makes social interactions very difficult, and you probably get a lot of negative feedback.” For instance, if a date makes a joke, a person with schizophrenia might take the words literally and respond accordingly.

People with schizophrenia can also experience paranoia, which complicates matters. Sarah, a librarian in her 40s who has schizoaffective disorder (a combination of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder), recalled that when she rode the bus she would break into tears because she thought other passengers were pointing and laughing at her. “I had no idea that what I was feeling wasn’t real,” she said.

For the more socially functional, there is a newer dating service, No Longer Lonely. The free Web site allows people to post and control their own profiles, much like Match.com. Jim Leftwich, a librarian in New York with schizoaffective disorder, started the site in 2005 and says it now has 6,000 members.

One happy couple, Elizabeth, who is bipolar, and James, who has schizoaffective disorder, met on the site last November and plan to marry in August. In their 40s, both are divorced and have histories of troubled relationships.

Elizabeth, an engineer, said a lot of men didn’t call her after dates. But she has been able to get along with James, a Navy veteran from a small town in Michigan who also has difficulty connecting with people. James said that people thought his behavior was odd but he didn’t know why. But with the Web site, he realized “there were other people with the same problem and I was no longer strange,” James said.

Recognizing that the mentally ill have difficulty functioning in mainstream society, Project Return the Next Step launched a string of social clubs in Los Angeles in the 1990s run by and for people with such problems.

Gail, 58, met her partner, Lynnette, 54, at one such gathering. Gail's diagnosis of chizoaffective disorder came when she was 14, when she heard voices telling her to become a nun. Lynnette has bipolar disorder, which causes devastating episodes of depression and hyperactive behavior.

Although neither woman has been hospitalized for decades, they still suffer from the social stigma of their conditions. “I was talking to someone on the bus and told him I was mentally ill and, just like everyone else, he got up and moved,” Gail said.

At Project Return the Next Step, however, she’s met people who understand her illness and empathize with her suffering.

While there is an argument that an emotionally resilient partner can provide strength during a spouse’s breakdown, the mentally ill say it often helps to be with someone who knows what they are going through. Sally credits her soul mate, Doug, for getting her through a particularly severe manic phase a few years ago.

“She just wasn’t herself,” Doug said. “She came home and started cleaning. She just did it all day long, and Sally doesn’t clean.” He persuaded her to go to the hospital, and during her six-week stay he pampered her with her favorite treat, English muffins, and took her on afternoon walks on the grounds. To further cheer her up, Robert brought her her engagement ring, got down on one knee and re-proposed.

That was the cure, Sally said. “It helped me recover so much quicker to have his support.”

E-mail: cfr2107@columbia.edu