Mental illness ups and downs

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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

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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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