Receiving a serious mental illness diagnosis like schizophrenia, bipolar disease or major depression can be “absolutely horrific,” according to Jan Nangle, president of Reed House Inc.
“This population normally has a 90 percent unemployment rate,” she explains. “If you have a 17-year-old diagnosed with one of these, you would find it would be highly unlikely — not impossible, but highly unlikely — statistically that they would ever complete their education, have a job, or marry and have kids. They would become isolated from family and pretty much anybody they knew before they got sick. They would probably spend some time living homelessly and some time in jail and they would die 25 years sooner than their peers because of lack of primary care that would prevent illnesses and the high suicide rate.
“So it’s an absolutely horrific diagnosis to get because in addition to all those challenges, you have the stigma. So many people don’t understand it. People don’t sympathize with behavior they don’t understand and it is just a horribly isolating experience.”
That’s why she says that having Reed House in Savannah is so important to this part of our community that includes at least 12,000 people in Chatham County because the members at Reed House accept people with serious mental illnesses exactly how they are. They also get the help they need to further their education, find employment and live independent lives.
“No one here says we are going to have an anger management class or a medication management class today. …We don’t talk about what is wrong with them unless they come to our staff and ask to talk to them … But what we look at is what they can do. If you can breathe you can do something.”
Reed House is Georgia’s only evidence-based mental health program that follows the standards of Clubhouse International and is a part of 341 accredited Clubhouses located in 34 different countries around the world. The goal is rehabilitation and to give those people whose lives have been disrupted by serious mental illness the opportunity to recover meaningful and productive lives. This is done through reintegration into the workplace and community with the help of certified staff and volunteers.
The start of change
According to Nangle, Clubhouses were started in the 1940s by patients that had been in psychiatric hospitals.
“Back in the ’40s, most people would spend most of their adulthood in the hospital. They would get stable in the hospital where everything was very routine and structured. So, they would be discharged into the chaotic world and they would decompensate and have to come back in. So they decided they would have a club, and when they were discharged, they would band together and help each other to stay out of the hospital. And that was the nucleus for what became the Fountain House in New York.
“It became so famous all over the world for rehabilitating people with mental illness. The words rehabilitation and mental illness had never been in the same paragraph before, but people came from all over the world to see what they were doing and started Clubhouses at home.
“Eventually, Fountain House started a separate organization to teach people how to build a Clubhouse, how to operate a Clubhouse … and how to follow the standards that they apply to accredited Clubhouses.”
Reed House is a part of Clubhouse International. Two years ago Fountain House and Clubhouse International were awarded the Hilton Humanitarian Prize, which Nangle says is the highest award given to human services organizations for doing more to alleviate human suffering than any other organization on the planet.
“What they do at the Clubhouse is every morning they start out here with the job board,” Nangle says and points to one of the many white boards hanging on the walls. There are boards to track just about everything that goes on at the Clubhouse.
“You see there is something for everybody to do,” she explains. “Someone has to volunteer to be the receptionist, give tours to visitors, take surveys for daily attendance … We keep tons of data. We can tell you how many people were here at any given hour. And we can tell you when a person is not here, and we have a group who will call and ask where they are. You can be here at any given hour while we are open; this isn’t something where you can only be here 30 minutes a week.
“It’s a Clubhouse; it belongs to them, they operate it. … By doing that they learn to show up, they learn to work on a team, they learn to set a goal and achieve it, they learn that they have talents and abilities that they may have never knew they had; they learn skills.
“… The whole point of a Clubhouse is to help people integrate into the workforce and the community because people with these illnesses become very isolated. They are told they are disabled, they are told they can’t work, even the doctors talk over their heads. We help to make them people again. We help to make them be all they can be.”
‘A light in the darkness’
Nangle explains that she is a retired health care attorney and became driven to help people with mental illness after she saw the lack of suitable treatment for people with serious mental illness in the community.
“I saw the difference in quantity and quality of health care service that was available for people with heart disease or cancer and then the dearth of services available for people with mental illness, and that is how I got passionate about this field and that’s why I volunteer a lot of time to this.
“… This is the only rehabilitation program in Savannah for people with serious mental illness. … You know, if you are in a major accident, break a bunch of bones or have heart attack or stroke or have a major illness, we have all kinds of rehab hospitals where people can go to recover once they are over the acute phase. But that doesn’t happen for someone with serious mental illness.
“So we are a light in the darkness; a ray of hope for people.”
Nangle says that in the three years of Reed House in Savannah, the team has witnessed many success stories including reuniting families and preventing suicides.
One of the main missions of the Clubhouse is to help members find sustainable employment in order to become financially stable and free from government assistance. The work-ordered day of the Clubhouse serves to help members find a purpose, learn to work with other people and stay on track with their medications. From there, they can enter the employment programs offered at Reed House where they can experience transitional, supported and independent employment.
“Supported employment is unique to Clubhouses; it’s where we help them find the job they want, qualify for it, apply for it and if they have issues doing it well, we go in and do the job coaching for it if that’s necessary. We are a sounding board here after work where they can come back and say, this happened at work today, how should I deal with it?”
Working, not just talking
Warren Sparrow is the executive director of Reed House and has 25 years of experience in Clubhouses. He started four Clubhouses in two countries and Nangle says he is the center of the Clubhouse and makes it all happen.
Sparrow says he kind of fell into the Clubhouse system right out of college and hasn’t worked anywhere else in the mental health field. He adds, “This kind of work speaks to me.”
He explains that the work aspect of the Clubhouses is what makes it unique to other treatment programs. “We are not sitting around talking about being sick or what their illness was or anything like that. The emphasis is always, let’s do this right now. We focus on developing team work.
“… With that, I could see the benefit of working and not sitting around talking about how sick we are.”
Nangle explains that not only does the Clubhouse structure help reduce hospital stays for people with mental illness, but it also cuts down on incarcerations. She points to a recent community indicator study by the local United Way.
“To everybody’s surprise, except ours, it identified the No. 1 problem the city and county need to address in moving forward the next few years is mental health. It’s not crime in Savannah, it’s not where the arena will be located; it is mental health. When you think about it, on any given day, about one-third of our jail population is only there because of mental illness. That’s about 450 people. That cost, by the time you include medicine, is about $100 a day per person.”
And Sparrow says it’s not just the cost of incarceration, but the use of the jail system to hold people with serious mental illness rather than release them without a health care or living arrangement plan.
“We’ve got a member right now who is down in Chatham County jail going on three months and is in his mid-20s,” Sparrow explains. “He was living at home with his parents and very symptomatic, very paranoid, and had assaulted his parents and after multiple assaults over the years, they finally called the police; which was the right thing to do. So, he was arrested in Chatham County, and the judge doesn’t want to release him because the parents say they can’t manage him at home. There aren’t other places to go, so he’s stuck in jail.”
Sparrow says the young man needs to be hospitalized, but was refused admission because of overcrowding or the fact that some hospitals refuse to accept repeat patients suffering from severe mental illness.
“Prior to being arrested, he was refused admission to (the hospital) a couple of times because they don’t want to be penalized for readmissions. Georgia Regional was too full to take him … The judge doesn’t want to release him because she doesn’t want him to be homeless; he will get eaten alive in that system. It’s tragic, it’s really tragic.”
Nangle says they have to keep him in jail to keep him safe. “They don’t do that with Alzheimer’s patients. I watched my mother go through five years of dementia and her behavior was not that much different than some of the people here at the Clubhouse, but yet we were able to keep her on a locked ward where she got everything she needed; medical care, food, nursing, everything. You can’t do that with the mentally ill. You can’t do it.”
Sparrow says there are four groups in Atlanta that have reached out to him to help model new Clubhouses there, and he hopes that Chatham County can increase funding to help expand local services. Reed House will open a larger location near Daffin Park in late fall, and with increased awareness of their mission they are hopeful to expand their reach.
He also says more support programs need to be integrated into the medical component when helping to rehabilitate those suffering from mental illness.
“Getting a job is just as important as taking the medicine to help with the symptoms,” he says. “That is the ‘whole of life’ thing that we have always looked at. We can’t do our jobs if you aren’t medicated; you have to give us the foundation to build on. Clinical services provide that foundation, but in the case of Georgia and other states, if that’s all they focus on then we have to continue to deal with revolving doors.
“People see success … and follow in other’s footsteps, and I think we’ll see something similar here. I think what we are doing here is creating that roadmap for other cities.”
About Reed House Inc.
Reed House is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and donations are welcome. Civic group, companies or church groups are welcome to sponsor Reed House. Info: Reed-House.org or call 912-777-4108.