Opal Sarapa

Opal Sarapa benefitted from a WRAP workshop and now helps others.

Each person around the conference table had some sort of trigger—a sound, smell or symptom that, if left unchecked, would take them down what Cindee Dickens described as “the rabbit hole” of mental health problems.

But the five people also had notebook binders in front of them, filled with actions they could take to recognize the triggers and deal with them. Each had identified coping skills that would help them as part of a Wellness Recovery Action Plan, or WRAP, and eagerly shared how it had helped them.

WRAP workshops are free, cover eight weeks and are offered locally several times a year. The next one starts Friday and is being held for the first time in Stafford County, at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library’s Howell Branch, 806 Lyons Blvd., off U.S. 17.

Those interested can contact Karen Kallay at 540/373-1744 or kakallay@gmail.com, even if they miss the first session to see if space is still available.

Opal Sarapa of Spotsylvania County took the workshop eight years ago, and it made such a difference that she’s undergone extensive training to become a specialist who helps others with similar problems. She has a brain disorder and post traumatic stress syndrome as a result of childhood trauma suffered at age 3.

Her senses are her triggers, and she used to be so traumatized by a sight, sound or smell that reminded her of her childhood that she was crippled by it.

“I’d be in a fetal position,” Sarapa said.

But during the workshops, Sarapa described how she felt when she was well and what she could do to stay that way. Then she listed the stressors—the things that could make her feel bad—so she would recognize them as they were happening, before she “went off the deep end.”

She used items she’d put in her “toolbox,” activities she came up with such as coloring or molding with clay, writing in a journal or reading prayer books. She does at least one activity a day to keep herself on track mentally and loves the feeling of empowerment the workshops provided.

“The WRAP book has helped me to know about myself, and it’s given me the freedom and the power not to be afraid,” Sarapa said, adding that she hasn’t regressed into the fetal position for more than eight years, “which is a miracle.”

Dickens, who lives in King George County, was heavily medicated on psychiatric drugs for 15 years and barely left the house. She struggled with social anxiety, depression and not caring whether she lived or died.

She decided to take herself off the medicine and ended up being admitted to a residential program. There, she heard about the “peer movement,” of which WRAP is a part, and liked the idea of others who’d been through what she had helping each other. All WRAP workshops are led by people who’ve experienced mental health problems then became certified as facilitators.

“It’s somebody who’s been down that road before,” said Brian Jackson, an Air Force veteran who lives in Fredericksburg.

Those with similar experiences may be more understanding and empathetic than someone in a clinical setting, he said.

A woman named Mary Ellen Copeland came up with the WRAP concept in 1997. She and her mother both struggled with mental health issues, and Copeland had asked her psychiatrist what she could do to keep herself well between sessions. When the doctor couldn’t provide any suggestions, Copeland and a group of others in northern Vermont came up with their own.

“The best ones ended up in the book” that workshop participants use, Kallay said.

WRAP is recognized by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration as an evidence-based practice that works. Locally, it’s endorsed by Mental Health America, Fredericksburg; the Rappahannock Area Community Services Board, which has provided funding; and National Alliance on Mental Illness, Rappahannock region.

Participants don’t need a referral or even a diagnosis to attend the workshops. The plans they design also include what to do if the situation worsens and reaches a crisis, said Karen McDonald of Stafford County.

Participants note in their books what friends, family or health officials should be called in a crisis, where they want to be treated and steps to recover from a crisis.

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Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425 cdyson@freelancestar.com

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