Shed a Light Foundation focuses spotlight on mental illness

A Rancho Santa Fe couple is hoping their personal story of tragedy — losing their son to severe mental illness — can help create a happier ending for the stories of others afflicted by the condition.

“It’s a story with a new beginning, and no end yet,” said Jim Bohlander, whose son, Barry, took his own life in 2005 at age 25 after suffering from acute schizophrenia for five years.

Bohlander and his wife, Sheryl, have launched the Shed a Light Foundation, which is dedicated to improving the lives of those with mental illness, and also raising awareness about the impacts of mental illness on individuals and families.

The Bohlanders are working with Scripps Behavioral Health, as well as carrying out other efforts, to provide resources and support for the mentally ill. On Wednesday, April 6, they hosted a reception at the Bridges clubhouse with Scripps doctors and staff, in an effort to get out the word about their fundraising efforts (see event photos on page A8).

Among their initiatives is helping Scripps raise the $220,000 per year needed to pay for a dedicated bed at a residential treatment center near Balboa Park, where patients can stay temporarily and receive care after leaving a psychiatric hospital, but before they are ready to live on their own or with family.

Another program they have supported is called A-Visions. Scripps runs the vocational training program for mentally ill people who have been stabilized through treatment, and then places them in jobs within the Scripps Health system. Currently, 22 people are working in dietary, clerical and administrative positions, officials said.

The Bohlanders’ fund was set up under the umbrella of the Rancho Santa Fe Foundation, which manages its assets.

Jim Bohlander became emotional when he talked about his son, who began to manifest signs of mental illness in his late teens. Before that, said Jim Bohlander, his son “had the world on a string. He was just the kid you thought would take over the world.”

The couple was living in Miami when Barry went off to college in pursuit of an engineering degree. But a year or so later, they got a call from police in Louisiana, who told them Barry had suffered a psychotic episode and been hospitalized. He was later diagnosed with acute schizophrenia.

For five years, Jim Bohlander said, his family struggled to help Barry by finding him treatment options, and trying to keep him on stabilizing medication. But the drugs had severe side effects, and his son would stop taking them. He battled demons such as a cacaphony of voices in his head.

He finally succumbed, but before he died, said Jim Bohlander, his son wrote a poem, which ended with the line, “I am still me.”

“I want to help these Barrys out there. They are special people,” Jim Bohlander said.

Among the speakers at the reception was Dr. Jerry Gold, administrator of the Scripps Behavioral Health program. Gold said he and his colleagues are working to expand opportunities for those suffering from mental illness, from more treatment options outside of a hospital setting, to reducing the stigma that prevents those being treated for mental illness from pursuing meaningful activities, such as employment,.

Kevin Wilson, who oversees Scripps A-Vision training and employment program, said, “It truly works. They have a tremendous drive to succeed. They love coming to work.”

After the Bohlanders moved to Rancho Santa Fe three and a half years ago, they began supporting Scripps Behavioral Health, and decided to revive their foundation late last year with the goal of raising money for the dedicated treatment bed in the Balboa Park facility.

Through their foundation, they are also seeking to support other mental health treatment facilities, whether it means buying a needed vehicle or other piece of equipment, collecting clothes for patients to wear for job interviews, or assembling toiletry kits to make patients more comfortable during hospital stays, said Sheryl Bohlander.

The foundation’s slogan is “providing care, security and hope for the mentally ill,” she said.

“We just really want to help people with mental illness. It’s so prevalent, it’s so underserved,” she said. “It’s time people start taking care of this segment of society.”

The couple’s big dream, they said, is to build a stand-alone treatment facility. “That’s going to be years down the road,” Sheryl Bohlander said.

For more information, or to donate to the Shed a Light Foundation, visit www.shedalight.com, or call 858-754-7457.

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