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May 08. 2013 11:40PM

Mark Hayward's City Matters: Clubhouse offers solace, structure for mentally ill


 


Diane Larochelle starts Wednesday morning at Granite Pathways by marking up the day's tasks for each member and staff. MARK HAYWARD/UNION LEADER 


Pam Brown, executive director of Granite Pathways, serves lunch Wednesday to Chris Hession at the organization's clubhouse. (MARK HAYWARD/UNION LEADER)

When it gets down to the basics, perhaps what we humans need most is structure.

A family to return to at night. Ten Commandments to follow. Jobs to keep us occupied (and grumpy).

But take all that away, say with something as cataclysmic as Hurricane Irene, or as frightening as a doctor closing his office door and letting out a sigh. Take all that away, and watch your life collapse as quickly as a high-rise Lincoln Log castle beset by an errant soccer ball.

Such can be the life of someone who learns he is mentally ill. Friends abandon you. Families grow distant. Jobs disappear. School gets out of reach. And structure? It becomes an overworked therapist and a $100-a-week room that encompasses you and your television.

So when Granite Pathways opened a clubhouse for the mentally ill nearly three years ago in the North End, it structured the endeavor around structure. Every day starts with a member (they aren't patients or clients) at a whiteboard assigning tasks and making announcements about upcoming trips or events. Tasks include gardening, shopping, cooking lunch, contacting absent members and cleaning bathrooms (the aptly titled germ warfare). There is so much work to do, in fact, that weekdays at the clubhouse are described as "work-ordered days."

"In a rooming house, you've got four walls and a TV. How much TV can you watch in a day?" said Jim M., 56, a grandfather who is disabled from aneurisms. "And when you're disabled, you pay your rent, and you're lucky if you can get a week's worth of groceries."

Granite Pathways is the first gathering spot for the mentally ill in New Hampshire to open under the clubhouse model. There are no therapists or counselors. The staff and members have equal say in decision making.

They meet in the rear structure of Brookside Congregational Church, the imposing, white steepled, church in the heart of the North End.

Interior walls are white, and windows let in an abundance of sunlight. Walls include ?artwork (some by a member who is enrolled at a local college), U.S. and world maps of other clubhouses, and the imposing whiteboard.

Snacks and lunch are available, but for a price ($1.50 for lunch). Staff avoids the term therapy, but say therapeutic activities are available - art projects, a drum circle, a discussion group on self-esteem.

To be sure, Granite Pathways has its issues. The main one is neighbors, whose regulatory and court fights against the clubhouse location predate its opening.

Neighbors have lost their case before a city regulatory board and a Superior Court judge. But in late February, the state Supreme Court kept the case alive. Lawyers are working on the ground rules for another hearing before the city Zoning Board of Adjustment.

"It's typical of people not knowing much about mental illness," said Erik, 30, who has a diagnosis of schizophrenia and is three months sober of alcohol. "If they showed up here, I don't think they'd have a problem with us being here."

The neighbors' lawyer, John Cronin, said no one is questioning the usefulness of the clubhouse. It just doesn't belong in a residential neighborhood, he said.

Otherwise, money is an issue for the organization. Massachusetts is home to 34 clubhouses, funded in part by state dollars, said Pam Brown, the board chairman and executive director. Granite Pathways, which is run on $134,000 a year and gets no state money. It exists off a United Way grant, donations and member efforts such as garage sales, books sales and the like.

Brown said success is measured by the number of active members, about 100, and the percentage of those who are employed, about 30 percent.

About 20 people - staff, interns and members - were on hand during a visit Wednesday. Throughout the morning, members went about their tasks. Staffer Michael Austin and two members shopped for food. Charlie Perkins, 49, a schizophrenic, gave a tour and answered questions. A few surfed the Internet and sat around, but they were in the minority.

Julie Van Ryen, a 34-year-old Londonderry resident with bipolar and autism diagnoses, credits Granite Pathways with her licensed nursing assistant license, which allows her to work with special-needs students.

Others work at grocery stores, the New Hampshire Food Bank, fast-food restaurants, a florist and at the mall. Two are custodians in the federal building,

"We'd love to work more," said Van Ryen. But most members are on disability, and if they work too long or earn too much, they lose their health care.

Diane Larochelle, 45, is one of the more active members. She worked the reception desk Wednesday, and ran the morning organizational meeting, in command of whiteboard and marker.

Larochelle said she's had a mental health diagnosis since she was 17. Other agencies offer drop-in centers, but they come with a lot of downtime. "It's just like you're hanging out," she said.

Granite Pathways, she said, is her home base, where she finds friends, informal support and structure.

"For most people here, the system was not working for them," Larochelle said, "It's very empowering here."

Mark Hayward's City Matters runs Thursdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and on UnionLeader.com. He can be reached at mhayward@unionleader.com.


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