We need a “Clubhouse” for those with mental illness to find purpose and dignity through work and community, writes guest columnist Larry Clum.

Share story

Can we change the narrative about what our communities can do to help those with severe mental illness?

This year already has brought a number of groundbreaking community education events in Seattle which do just that.

Kate Vrijmoet’s recent exhibit and discussion forums at Seattle City Hall, called “The Incredible Intensity of Just Being Human,” proclaimed loud and clear that recovery from mental illness is an everyday reality, and that our systems of treatment and intervention alone, are insufficient. Restoring someone with persistent mental illness to our community and keeping them there begins with reducing the stigma and ends with intentional communities of recovery.

Working in King County over the past 15 years as a community mental health clinician, emergency-room social worker, and street outreach program director, I’ve faced the obstacles to helping those with persistent mental illness.

The process begins with establishing a relationship, and this alone can seem like a mind-bending proposition for many people. Downtown residents often ask, “How should I approach someone with signs of mental illness in order to offer help?”

While there is no simple answer to this good question, there are a few suggestions to keep in mind. Be a good neighbor with those we share the public space; be kind and curious with an attitude of genuine acceptance and empathy. Be mindful of creating a hospitable place, which means taking time beforehand to observe the person and then approach in a “safe space” for you and the person to whom you are reaching out to.

Building relationship with someone experiencing the effects of severe mental illness often takes a lot of patience and time. If the person appears to be too agitated for conversation, and under such distress that safety could be an issue, call 911. However, in most cases, simply offering reassurance while listening without judgment can have a huge impact on someone in distress.

(William Brown / Op Art)
(William Brown / Op Art)

While referring people to treatment is important, more than 50 percent do not complete treatment in Washington state. We are seeing some success in helping those who are living on the streets through time-rich engagement and relationship building. However, from my vantage point, there are some key pieces missing in our state.

First, Washington was recently ranked near the bottom of all 50 states in availability of psychiatric hospital beds per capita.

Lack of psychiatric beds and short mental health hospital stays lead to inhumane “ER warehousing” and premature hospital discharges of vulnerable folks who then end up on the streets.

Secondly, there are no mental health Clubhouse International facilities in Seattle, like Sunrise Club in Yakima or HERO House in Bellevue. These are not half-way houses or mental health centers (which have a role to play as well), but places where folks whose lives have been disrupted by mental illness can have the opportunity to recover hope, purpose and dignity through work and community.

Clubhouse International is a highly successful, evidence-based program that forms supportive communities for those living with the effects of mental illness. Rates of job placement, reduction in homelessness and incarceration are well documented with this model, yet remarkably, Seattle does not have one.

There remains a lack of public education opportunities related to mental illness.

The Seattle Union Gospel Mission’s Mental Health Program has partnered with the Downtown Seattle Association to offer low-cost Mental Health First Aid courses. We hope to educate and empower leaders, business owners, and residents living and working downtown about the real story of mental illness and how to effectively help someone who is developing a mental health problem or is in crisis. More information can be found at: www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org.

Former King County Executive Randy Revelle, who has made public his own struggles with bipolar disorder, stated it best in a speech, which opened the Seattle City Hall art exhibit, “Tell the truth about mental illness …(because) … it is often more difficult to overcome the stigma than to recover from the illness itself.”

For too long now, we have focused our efforts on treating the illness and not enough on inviting those on our streets with mental illness to membership in our community by offering words of affirmation, and a safe place for empowerment and recovery.

What would it take to organize a Clubhouse in Seattle where these practices are daily fare, and the stories of transformation are abundant! Through education, legislation, and not only caring for the vulnerable but seeking to know them, we can move closer to creating a real community of recovery, for everyone, in Seattle.