Mental health advocate prunes stress by gardening
By DEBORAH CIRCELLI
Last update: 31 May 2004
DAYTONA BEACH -- Gail Gregory feels almost on another planet in her back yard with her hands entrenched in the dirt.
She is a world away from the stress of calls from parents worrying about their children taking their lives or the struggles of running a mental-health organization on a shoestring budget.
"The closer I get to the earth, the better it is," said Gregory, president-CEO of the Mental Health Association of Volusia County and director of the Suicide Prevention Coalition of Volusia & Flagler counties. "I dig and root and get my hands dirty. It's very cleansing."
Her focus in recent days is on trying to save some roses that have slipped through her busy radar. Gardening mirrors her approach to how she tries to help people.
"You see growth and development when you do one or two things to a plant and you get rewarded by seeing it grow. But when it dies, you feel sad," said Gregory, 60. Her father, a conservationist, taught her to leave things better than she found them. "In a way, you garden people. If something doesn't work, you try something else."
Her back yard in Glenwood is her refuge. She often makes herself motion sick with binoculars searching for more than a foot tall woodpecker. She keeps an eye out daily for an armadillo, whom she humorously refers to as her pet. A picture of the gray-ribbed creature hangs on the wall in her Mental Health Association office on Ridgewood Avenue near pictures of her husband, Bill Scott, a Seminole County deputy sheriff; two daughters and two grandsons.
It's fitting for one of the area's main mental-health advocates who is known not only for her knowledge in the field, but for bringing humor to otherwise serious topics so others will feel comfortable.
"Her advocacy really comes from the heart," said Randy Croy, executive director of Serenity House, which provides assistance to those with mental illness or substance-abuse problems.
One example is dressing up as one of her favorite Star Trek characters on Halloween as she attends advisory meetings.
Humor is a survival skill in a job that, at times, has her dreaming about callers needing help. It weighs heavy on her mind knowing in some cases she and her staff are sending people to agencies that have waiting lists because of lack of funding for mental-health treatment.
As if it were yesterday, she describes sitting in the office more than a year ago with Judy Brown, the association's office manager, who generally is on the front line dealing with callers and visitors.
A man is his 30s walked into their office and bluntly said he was going to place himself on the railroad tracks. They both went into crisis mode trying to talk him down and convince him to wait for the police to take him to a treatment center.
But before the police could arrive he bolted for the tracks. Luckily, five officers were able to wrestle him off the track five minutes before the next train.
"We know he was hospitalized, but after that we don't know what happened," Gregory said. "At least we know we saved him that day."
Gregory, a nurse since 1966, has spent the majority of her adult life working in hospitals or treatment facilities in New York and Florida and continuing her education while raising a family. Her interest started as a young child watching an aunt spend two years in a mental hospital and then years doing well before needing treatment again.
"I just always thought her behavior was eccentric," Gregory said. "It didn't threaten me, and that just carried over to my adult life."
She admits it's one of the most frustrating professions, as the need for treatment increases yet funding continues to dwindle. She has a hard time answering what is the reward, though she just loves helping people.
"You really can burn out very easily. You get beaten down, and you have to fight your way up again," Gregory said.
But her reward could be seen this past week on the faces of more than a dozen mental-health patients at the association's Debra Anne House, a drop-in center for people to socialize and attend support groups. She stood in the middle of a circle explaining how funding from the United Way had been restored after being cut last year. One of the clients asked to shake her hand, and her face lit up as the man told her this was his family.
"She is our advocate," said Joanne Dubois, 54, who is bipolar and has a touch of schizophrenia. "If she was gone, we'd be lost."
Gregory's passion the last few years has been trying to erase the stigma and fear some have about people who are mentally ill. She hopes a new consortium being formed between the Volusia County Health Department and the suicide coalition will help to increase education.
"People are afraid of the unknown," Gregory said. "There's also that stigma that it's an embarrassment, which is so foolish. It's a disease -- a brain disorder. Just like when your pancreas doesn't work to make insulin, you develop diabetes. If your brain chemicals are not working, your brain will not function properly.
"That's not a person's choice," she added. "People don't go around thinking when I grow up I'm going to become mentally ill."