Reshaping how people with mental health problems see themselves

Summer Berman is the executive director of Fresh Start Clubhouse in Ann Arbor, a community that provides resources for people with mental illness and supports them through their recovery through meaningful work and relationships. Fresh Start is Michigan’s first independent mental health clubhouse.The Fresh Start Clubhouse has existed since 2000, but recently reopened as an independent organization. What will that change?

This way we can serve more people. We’ve always existed as a different agency program that’s part of the statewide public mental health system — which we’re big, big fans of. We love public mental health. But by becoming an independent organization, we can expand. We are working to help more people than traditionally qualify for public mental health care.

What services do people go to the clubhouse for?

The kind of long fancy term is psychosocial rehabilitation or psychiatric rehabilitation. That is basically helping people live the life they want to live. We are a non-clinical program, so we don’t do medication management or traditional therapy, but we help people go back to school and find a job and live independently. I think about it this way, if you break your hip or need a hip replacement, then you get the intensive inpatient treatment you need, that hip replacement or surgery or whatever, but then you get physical problems. therapy afterwards, to help you actually use that limb or joint. We are a bit related to that rehabilitation therapy. We don’t do the intensive clinical treatment of someone’s mental illness, but we help them come back into the world and live.

What else does the Clubhouse offer?

We are largely about using the community and sense of belonging, and helping people build a sense of self-reliance and self-confidence so they can live lives that are meaningful and purposeful. All people should feel that they belong. They need to feel like they have value and worth in the world, whether they have a mental illness or not. But often people with severe mental illness face higher levels of social isolation than the general population. The Clubhouse model is about that social rebuilding, through the kind of social muscles, if you will, to help people build those relationships, challenge that social isolation and just get back to the routines that allow us to function in daily life.
Fresh Start members and staff at the Elsworth location
What does that look like in the Clubhouse?

It is operationalized by members who are actively involved in really running the organization – so everything from making sure the trash is taken out and the space is clean, to writing grants and submitting our invoices. In some ways, it’s like a volunteer program where members come in, and they use their skills and their talents and their ability to work in a team. We are very focused on group activities and group work. It’s not so much members who come in and just receive services – it’s members who come in and help each other. I can help someone write their CV, as a member of staff, but it can also be another member who helps them with their CV.

How does this approach differ from the typical model for organizations providing similar services?

It’s really about empowerment. Not only does it help people meet their needs, it helps them learn how to meet their own needs, and helps them build that sense of confidence and self-reliance. Often people are confronted by well-meaning people who tell them about their limitations. We’ve had people whose families tell them, “You’ll never be able to work.” Or even their doctors have sometimes said, “You’re not going to be able to do that – you can’t have a family, you can’t hold a job, you can’t do these things.” It’s really about helping people rebuild their sense of self, and helping them create a new identity that goes beyond patients, beyond clients, beyond sick persons. It’s creating an identity based on what they can do, what they want to do, what they want out of life, and really reshaping how they see themselves.

What are you looking forward to for the clubhouse in the coming months?

This is a really exciting transition for us. We were sort of forced into it when the pandemic broke out, but it was kind of a silver lining situation. I’m very excited about the people we can serve in Washtenaw County outside of our traditional population, but I’m also excited about the ways that I hope and expect that this will change the landscape of clubhouse services in Michigan, making more clubhouses available to more people in the state of Michigan. The clubhouse model has been around for over 70 years, but many people have never even heard of a clubhouse. We don’t want to be the best kept secret, we want to be the best known solution in the community.

This post is part of our Not-for-profit journal project, an initiative inviting leaders of Metro Detroit nonprofits to share their thoughts through journal entries on how COVID-19, increased awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change, and more are impacting their work — and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.

Reshaping how people with mental health problems see themselves

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