Chris Alexander

Mental-health Class
Helps Clients Improve Lives

April 30, 2007

It was 1981. She was a respected high school teacher with a master's degree and eight years' teaching experience. Yet, one November morning, Donna Painter "couldn't take it anymore" and quit.

"I had terrible self-esteem," explains Painter, of Anaheim. "Eventually I ended up in a treatment facility, diagnosed with anxiety disorder and major depression."

Painter, now 52, is one of Orange County's 50,000 residents with a serious mental disorder, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

In December, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a comprehensive report on mental health/mental illness. Among its findings:

  • One in five people experiences mental illness in any given year.
  • Mental disorders are real health conditions and are disabling.
  • Treatment effectiveness is well documented.
  • The stigma of mental illness hinders people from seeking help.

Among the report's suggestions: Improve public awareness of treatments and ensure the supply of mental-health services and providers.

One treatment making its mark in Orange County is the "Meaningful Life" course, created in November 1998 by a behavioral psychologist, Chris Alexander, for the John Henry Foundation.

The nonprofit foundation in Garden Grove offers medical treatment, counseling, and other free services for people with mental illness.

With help from Carol Montsinger, the Foundation's director, Alexander developed the 13-week workshop to help clients take charge of their lives, manage medication, and maintain a job.

Clients learn to recognize anxieties and deal sensibly with anger and stress. Nutrition, exercise, and spiritual development are emphasized.

"We help clients live purposeful, meaningful lives," Alexander said.

"I took the course last year; it helped me focus on my abilities and feel good about my job," said Painter, a receptionist at the Foundation.

Donn Case, 33, graduated from college in 1990, but schizophrenia and excessive alcohol "made my mind go dormant," Case confided.

"I couldn't write, concentrate or articulate," he said.

Since taking the course, Case says he has no desire for alcohol; he writes the Foundation's newsletter and teaches workshops.

Of the 113 graduates of the Meaningful Life course since its inception, 44 who were unemployed have jobs, Montsinger says. Five clients returned to college, and one mother regained custody of her four children.

Course fees come from clients, grants, county funds, and scholarships. For information, call the Foundation, (714) 539-9597. For other mental-health programs, see the Challenger Calendar.

Write to the Challenger, The Orange County Register, P.O. Box 11626, Santa Ana, CA 92711, or e-mail to

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