“You are so desperate for somebody who has the light, all you want is to find the person with the light. Because what you’re in, there’s no roadmap, there are no guide books, there are precious few people who really want to help. Or at least that was our experience back home,” said Sun City resident Terri Reutter.
Reutter, whose daughter Holly spent her last 20 years in and out of psychiatric hospitals and rehabilitation programs before committing suicide in 2020, was sharing what she and husband Wes found out about Mental Health America of Beaufort-Jasper.
“Had I known that this existed when we moved here in 2014, we would have brought our daughter down here,” Reutter said, “but we were told by two fairly reliable sources that there wasn’t really any mental health support down here, particularly not for women.”
The 501(c)(3) organization was founded in 1976 on Hilton Head Island, and provides “diagnostic, preventative and rehabilitative procedures recommended by a physician or other licensed practitioner of the healing arts,” according to its website.
While attending an author’s lunch at Belfair, Reutter sat next to the organization’s co-chairs, Joyce A. Braude and Susan Williams.
“They began to tell me a little bit about Mental Health America, and about Island House. Because we had a daughter who had mental health issues, a bell went off in my head and I wanted to know more,” said Reutter.
After Braude gave her a business card and an invitation to visit the Bluffton location where Mental Health America was now located, Reutter made an appointment, and toured the entire facility at 4454 Bluffton Park Crescent.
“Holly would have been an ideal person to live at the Canal Apartments because she could have lived independently, and she could have held down a job as she did over the years,” Reutter said. “It just it breaks my heart that we didn’t know. But you can’t play the ‘what if.’”
The apartments are one of four locations that serve clients: La Isla House, which shares with Island House; Canal Apartments in Beaufort; and Jasper House in Ridgeland.
Each house can serve eight people per counselor, and at the moment only Island House is full. In anticipation of clients for La Isla House, Steve Caywood, executive director of Mental Health America of Beaufort-Jasper, hired Maria Renee Rodriguez Josey, a bilingual counselor from Guatemala. She has been connecting with Spanish ministries in area churches.
The organization is “probably one of the oldest, least-known charities in the whole region,” Caywood said. The nonprofit treats clients ages 18 and older who have been diagnosed with a mental illness, mostly bipolar or schizophrenia, in an outpatient mental health group counseling model. They might also treat those who have suffered serious head injuries.
Reutter said Holly was a dual diagnosis person, with the most significant issue being a borderline personality disorder that professionals told the family was very difficult to treat.
“We came down here in 2014, and Holly was still in Delaware. Her sister, our only other child, lives in New York City, so (Holly) was on her own. When we came down here, it was okay, and then it was really not okay. And then it was okay,” Reutter said. “She would go through these cycles, and she couldn’t really support herself.”
In 2020, Holly had just come off a very long psychiatric hospital stay, said her mother, and then a person who was very significant to her died in March 2020.
“His death just threw her into an even deeper depression than she normally dealt with, and she went back into a psychiatric hospital for a month. When she came out, I don’t think she was out for more than 48 hours, and she took her own life,” Reutter said. “I just think it was all too much.”
Caywood, who has headed the local Mental Health America organization for 18 months, after leaving the top spot at Hilton Head Hospital, said he figures more than 200 clients have passed through the organization in the past 47 years.
Very few of those who come for treatment are able to leave and become fully independent, he said.
One who did is Wendye Savage, now a local author and motivational speaker. Caywood said she and her husband married young, they were in the military and when they transitioned out, they had four children. It was then that the husband became extremely abusive, Caywood said.
“All kinds of things happened, and she basically spiraled down to the point that they ended up admitting her to a psychiatric unit. He divorced her and she lost her kids. Eventually she got into the Island House program,” he said. “She was in five or six years and got herself back together. She now is kind of a motivational speaker, and has a book out called ‘What’s in Your Purse,’ and she has a pretty decent, active life.”
Caywood said Savage paid Island House a visit the day of this interview.
“When she walked in, the people in our program knew her right away, and one woman started crying. But she’s just a wonderful, wonderful lady, and she’s wildly accepted,” he said.
Savage, however, is the rare exception.
“The answer is there’s no one in our program currently that’s ever going to go out and live independently,” Caywood said.
Everything is aimed at giving them daily living skills, including being responsible for making their own meals as a group, and talking openly in group counseling about their particular mental illnesses.
“This is trying to get them comfortable so they can understand what it is and deal with it, and try to remove the stigma of having that mental illness,” said Caywood.
Clients are referred to MHA through their doctors or other resources such as Coastal Empire Mental Health on the island or the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The nonprofit is funded by client fees, donations and grants. Caywood said $300,000 will be paid from client fees and other sources, but he still needs $200,000 to cover the cost of the operation.
There are three other Mental Health America affiliates in South Carolina: Greenville, Spartanburg, and the main office in Columbia. They are among more than 200 others that fall under the corporate offices in Washington, D.C.
For more information about Mental Health America Beaufort-Jasper, go to mhabeaufortjasper.org or call 843-757-3900.
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.