Mental illness ups and downs

Carriage House, Ft. Wayne, Indiana
Carriage House, Ft. Wayne, Indiana

During meetings of the Carriage House board, we talked so often about the need for an elevator in the building, I’d lost track of the ongoing fundraising, architect’s plans for the project and its construction.

Yet 15 years later, here was the announcement of the dream come true on the front page of the morning Journal Gazette. What’s more, the headline over the story was “above the fold.” Such placement adds to the significance of the story, as this veteran journalist was quickly to note.

For many of the hundreds of Carriage House members, the news of the installation of the elevator means they’ll be able to get to the second floor where you can find a snack bar, a bank for members, a clerical space and video studio.

No more dealing with two flights of stairs for members with physical handicaps – or just not able to join in what’s going on in that floor.

My understanding is that the elevator also reaches to the lower floor. That’s where members can do their laundry, rather than enlisting a friend to help out.

It cost over $200,000 to construct and install the elevator in this early 20th Century mansion on a hill. The funds came from private donors and community development block grants.

But this is so much the story of the Fort Wayne clubhouse, one of several hundred such rehabilitation programs worldwide, the granddaddy being the Fountain House on West 47th Street in New York City.

The program is simplicity itself. It’s organized around the work-ordered day. Twenty or so members meet daily to assign jobs, from housekeeping to yard work to clerical jobs. Lots of members hold temporary jobs in the community. That includes businesses, law firms and restaurants. For years, my Unitarian church has hired a number of club members for custodial work.

In our family, my son John has been on the faculty of the International Center for Clubhouse Development – the ICCD it’s usually called. This oversight group based in New York’s Fountain House sends him and a paid staff to spend a few days at another clubhouse around the country.

These faculty visits help the local program identify strengths and problems, measured against long-accepted standards for effective programs to help persons with a mental illness get back into the mainstream of community life.

Which brings me to the big story at Fort Wayne’s Carriage House. It’s not the installation of an elevator, as important as that is. The big story is played out daily in the lives of the more than 1,500 members.

For them, the clubhouse is a place to develop life-long friends. It’s a place to brush up on job and life skills. It’s a place to begin to recover from this most devastating and seemingly hopeless disability.

Clubhouse members have skills and knowledge and friendship to share with others in their community. What a wonderful mission for this remarkable institution called the Carriage House.

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Sanctuary on Lake Avenue

Carriage House, Ft. Wayne, Indiana
Carriage House, Ft. Wayne, Indiana

I’ve got to admit that this posting is personal.

It’s not just that I once battled depression myself and spent a few weeks in a psychiatric ward, back in the early 1970s. Or that my son John and daughter Robyn suffer from mental illness. Over the years, I’ve made so many friends who suffer and so many advocates that it’s like having an extended family.

That’s exactly the feeling I have about the Carriage House on Lake Avenue, here in Fort Wayne.

Yes, I have a special interest in this rehabilitation center. I’ve been on the board since the beginning, in the 1990s, before I retired writing editorials for The Journal Gazette.

Let me begin by noting that the Carriage House belongs to an international movement that has established hundreds like it worldwide. That includes cities such as ours throughout the United States.

The granddaddy of them all is Fountain House, on West 47th Street in New York City, which I’ve visited.

Clubhouses do their best to follow the international standards, set years ago. These standards have been proven to help persons diagnosed with a major mental illness.

For years, the International Center for Clubhouse Development has been sending my son John to other clubhouses to evaluate their work and to make recommendations to improve. He’s one of many throughout the country.

I should emphasize that the clubhouse model is unlike anything else that treats persons with a mental illness. As the directors of these centers will tell you, “You leave the illness behind when you walk through the door.”

You’re accepted for who you are not for what illness you’ve got.

Clubhouses don’t dispense drugs. Members receive their prescriptions from their family doctor or their psychiatrist.

Clubhouses don’t offer personal or group therapy, either. Members might or might not attend therapy sessions with a private counselor. They might or might not have a job.

A bare-bones professional staff at a clubhouse offers members a chance to help fix and serve a nice luncheon. Other members will help with office work. For years, one member has always made a financial report to the board.

Beyond these activities, you might find members cutting the grass or, in the winter, clearing the driveway and parking lot. Then there are the “T.E.” jobs: transitional employment. Our Unitarian congregation has employed a club member as the regular custodian since the beginning.

I believe we were the first employer in town for a club member.

The Carriage House is hard to miss on Lake Avenue. A large, converted private mansion, with a large addition, it’s set on a hill which day and night quietly announces its hopeful presence. Inside, it’s a different story.

Club members convene daily to discuss issues that arise in such a program that can see scores of people every day, Monday through Friday. Most of us on the board have a personal connection to mental illness.

In fact, several club members also serve on the board themselves.

I’ve been so impressed with how much the Carriage House has helped both of my children. Both of these middle-age persons have found new ways to contribute to their community.

Besides evaluating other clubhouses, John has taught nursing students about mental illness. Robyn, a long-time Spanish teacher, has been tutoring students on a private basis, often as a volunteer.

Countless other club members have found their way back into the mainstream, in jobs, completing schooling, supporting other family members who might have their own struggles.

But if I had to single out one thing that makes programs such as the Carriage House such a success, it’s the chance members have to develop real, accepting relationships.

I can speak from experience that mental illness can be so isolating. You can spend day and night ruminating. In this state, a person can easily fall deeper and deeper into depression and a sense of worthlessness.

Thoughts of suicide are too common.

A clubhouse takes a person out of him or herself and connects that person with others, with the world. I’m so sure it’s a great feeling to be so liberated. You can restore your self-respect. You can get back your sense of purpose in life.

To be sure, persons with a mental illness can find a way through other kinds of program. A few even get back into the mainstream on their own. For me, it was resigning from public school teaching.

But I know of nothing that addresses so many different issues and has helps so many persons with mental illness in so many ways. I just hope that more people who suffer in our town will find their way to that big white house on Lake Avenue.

It’s likely to change their lives.

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Not just mind games for these minds

Carriage House, Ft. Wayne, Indiana
Carriage House, Ft. Wayne, Indiana

I thumbed through the minutes at the board meeting. I lost my place a couple of times. Director Andy Wilson gave his report and an update about the status of the bid to get regular funding through the state.

Then we heard from a new Carriage House member who related her personal story about a long struggle with mental illness and how the Carriage House has helped her. That’s when I was reminded why I was there and what this program has meant to so many hundreds of people in our community afflicted with this disability.

Without a doubt, it’s been a lifesaver for my son John.

Years ago, they made me a founding board member. I wrote editorials for The Journal Gazette to promote the Carriage House. As a founder, my tenure on the board has no set term limit. I’m there until I get too obnoxious and they kick me out. But I keep myself in check. I’m just so grateful that nearly 20 years ago, Dr. Steve Glock and his wife Joyce took the lead in locating the huge property on Lake Avenue and brought the clubhouse and this amazing rehabilitation program to Fort Wayne.

Like the hundreds of other such certified programs in the world, our clubhouse helps those who battle mental illness find work in the community, develop lasting friendships and study for the GED or prepare for college classes.

Just keeping the house going has provided work experience for hundreds of members. They prepare and serve lunch, keep the building clean and the property as neat and care-for as the professional office building next door.

You might find a club member working at Parkview Hospital, doing office chores at a business, stocking shelves at the main library downtown or sorting mail at a law office. At the oldest transition job at my Unitarian church, a club member does the custodial work, making sure the building is clean, the chairs in the sanctuary and social hall properly arranged each week.

To just hint at the numbers of people with this disability in our town, consider that since the Carriage House was established in 1997, it has served over 1,500 clients. Daily attendance runs around 65 to 70.

This is one program where a member can drop out and still be welcomed back months or years later as a full-fledged member. Paid staff don’t order people around. Everyone, staff and members, are regarded as equals. That’s the clubhouse philosophy. House meetings discuss the issues of the day and everybody is invited to contribute. Decisions are by consensus.

It’s impossible to do justice to the Carriage House story, no matter how many times and in what venues I tell it. There’s the “Dancing with the Stars” fundraiser in the fall, modeling after the hit TV show. There are the overnight visits from other clubhouses to learn why the Fort Wayne program has such a good reputation. There’s the support from other agencies such as Park Center, our community mental health service, as well as the local chapter of the National Alliance On Mental Illness.

Years ago, my son John was selected to join the International Center for Clubhouse Development, which dispatches him to other clubhouses to evaluate and make recommendations for ways to improve. The ICCD even has sent him to Hawaii for one site visit. All in a good cause, but I’m sure the trip was a boost to his mental health.

As I sat through the Carriage House board meeting the other day, I felt proud to be a part of such a program, if only on the sidelines. But it’s hard to be at a meeting or enjoy the huge “Dancing with the Stars” gathering at the Grand Wayne Center and not be reminded that our clubhouse only reaches a fraction of those who suffer from mental illness.

There’s nothing like it. I’ve visited the granddaddy of clubhouses, Fountain House on West 47th Street in New York City where it all began. That visit told the most important story: a clubhouse saves lives.

I’ve seen it in our town. I’ve seen in it in our family.

I don’t mind a bit sitting through an hour-and-a-half Carriage House board meeting.

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Mental illness urgent challenge

Dr. Hank Schwartz
Dr. Hank Schwartz

A few years ago a teenager in a Cleveland suburb walked into the high school cafeteria and opened fired with a semi-automatic weapon and killed three students.

He was back in the news this week. He was identified as one of three inmates who escaped from a Lima, Ohio, prison. The youth, now 19, and his companions were caught within a few hours returned to the prison.

What caught my attention came at the end of the story. It said the boy was found to suffer from a psychosis and often experiences hallucinations. When he was sentenced as an adult to three life sentences, he just looked around and laughed. He offered no reason for the killings. Was this kid mentally ill? Very mentally ill? Of course. You can bet he wasn’t being treated.

Yesterday, the paper ran an op.ed. column by Hank Schwartz, a psychiatrist at a Hartford, Conn., center. Schwartz told of a patient who committed suicide years ago and how he remains troubled to this day that he missed any warning signs that might have alerted him to the patient’s intent.

These are not typical stories about people with a mental illness. The person with a mental illness is no more likely than anybody else to kill. It is far more likely that individual with a mental illness will take his or her own life. Even that is not common.

The bigger story is that so many people live with a mental illness. It’s estimated to be about 20 percent of the population. According to surveys, fewer than half of those with the disability get any kind of treatment. More often, it’s not a mental health professional who provides the treatment.

There’s no community with enough mental health professionals to help those in need. Every person in the field I’ve ever interviewed has attested to that. Moreover, Indiana is like a number of states. They cut back mental health services to save tax dollars. The Fort Wayne area’s mental health center, Park Center, recently has had to reduce its staff. The reason? Reduction in state funding.

Meantime, the Carriage House in Fort Wayne, a rehabilitation center for persons with mental illness seems chronically understaffed. I hear regularly about that at our quarterly board meetings. The failure of state government to pick up the funding slack is self-defeating. It’s just such rehabilitation programs as the Carriage House that keeps people out of the hospital, saving the state many dollars in Medicaid funds.

To be sure, people sometimes don’t seek treatment out of fear of being stigmatized. The stigma is powerful. It can put a person’s job or marriage in jeopardy. Or the family doctor won’t get the full story and prescribe an anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medication when the patient might also benefit from an anti-psychotic drug. There’s also a condition that experts are familiar with when the patient believes there’s nothing wrong with him or her – everyone else is crazy. That’s rare, though.

National advocacy groups such as NAMI have campaigned for years to combat the stigma of mental illness and improve services. Our family knows first-hand the struggles of those who suffer with a mental illness. Yet we also celebrate their successes. Still, it’s disheartening to know communities can do so much better to make a difference in many more lives.

Mental illness can strike anyone, at any station in life, at any age, any race or ethnic heritage, in any job, of any marital status. It is no respecter of persons. The tragedies aren’t just found in the crime stories.

Am I my brother or sister’s keeper? Even if the person has a mental illness? I think I know the answer.

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