In 1983 I founded the Columbia University Day Program to serve students who had, because of mental health and substance abuse issues, dropped out of college.
I began by recruiting dedicated clinicians to provide group therapy to students. The staff developed close bonds, and we became a second family. Our biggest challenge was to encourage students to participate fully and openly in groups. Eventually almost all became contributing members.
I learned that no matter how grim someone’s history, the acuity of their problems, or the severity of their symptoms, once mobilized there was no limit to what they could accomplish. We received many letters years after the students had graduated from our program. We still remember each of them and care deeply about them. When they wrote of having developed meaning and purpose in their lives, pursing exciting careers and starting families it would bring tears to our eyes.
I remember a 20 year old suicidal education major with a history of abuse, a severe eating disorder and difficulty trusting others. From the time she entered the program she was pessimistic about group therapy and said that it was a waste of her time. Her negativity frustrated group leaders and at times other patients. I admired her honesty and compassion. She sought me out after group meetings to share her frustrations and later her hopes for the future. After 18 months in the program she graduated from college and went on to become a teacher. She married and years later came back to the visit us with her young child. She thanked our staff members and told me how important I had been to her, particularly because I believed in her.
About 6 years ago we surveyed Day Program graduates. Most reported lasting benefits. When asked what had been the most important therapeutic factor, we had expected people to mention the skills they had learned in our evidenced based skills groups. However, instead they cited meaningful relationships with staff and other group members.
When approached by Brian Kinsella to participate in this new project I was excited about the possibility of using lessons I learned to create a program for a broader range of patients. As a woman, I have an important perspective and am committed again to recruiting a diverse, collegial and enthusiastic group of clinicians.
I have chosen a bridge for my personal blueprint. From my Day Program experience I know that for people who are isolated, forming connections can be life-saving. As Hart Crane conveys in "To Brooklyn Bridge," it is a manmade structure that brings together estranged people and fractured parts of our society. When it was built it was an architectural and engineering marvel and represents what I love most about New York: it’s beauty and vitality.