Stairways to health
New clubhouse based on an old model offers support and training for the mentally ill
A year ago David Bradley was a self-described “emotional train wreck” battling severe depression and suicidal thoughts. His blood pressure was at peak levels, and he couldn’t keep his emotions under control.
Now he finds comfort at Club Stairways, a supportive environment with a mission to provide people with mental illness an opportunity to live meaningful and productive lives by integrating them into the community and workforce. Bradley says he enjoys being around people who care.
This nonprofit gathering place, currently housed at the Jesus Center in Chico, is based on the clubhouse model, one of the oldest social and vocational rehabilitation programs for people with mental illness, said founder and Executive Director Mike Little. The model is based on the Fountain House, which has been operating in New York since 1948 and has now expanded into 400 communities in 28 countries around the world.
In less than two months, Club Stairways has grown to 57 members. It will celebrate its grand-opening celebration Tuesday (April 21).
“When I come here, I feel like I am at home,” Bradley said. “I’m making friends, getting moral support—[it’s] where people say, ‘I’m here for you.’
“Depression is really, really bad,” he continued. “It feels like no one cares, that you are all alone and have no support.”
Bradley isn’t alone. More than 17,000 people in Butte County have been diagnosed with a mental illness, said Little—and the severity of the problem affects others as well.
“One out of every five people is connected in some way with someone who is struggling with a mental illness,” he said. “But [mental illness is] not something people tend to talk about. People talk about a family member with cancer, but there is a stigma around mental illness. It’s unfortunate.”
Little was recently nominated for the National Association of Social Workers California Chapter Public Citizen of the Year Award by the National Association of Social Workers California Chapter, Chico Unit.
In addition to Club Stairways, Little has been offering housing and support services for those with mental illness for eight years through Stairways Recovery. There, three levels of housing offer people an opportunity to gradually learn how to successfully live independently with their disabilities.
Also, he is president of the local National Alliance on Mental Illness chapter and a member of the Crisis Intervention Team steering committee.
Prior to creating programs for people with mental illnesses, Little worked in the Bay Area as a consultant with Fortune 500 companies to develop strategies to improve overall performance. In 1999, he decided he wanted to make a difference and help people.
His work developing community-based services for adults with mental illness began when he lived in a house with six ill adults for three years. There he gained insight into mental illness and realized the majority of these people can be successful with support.
“What I saw was that the residents, my roommates, had a lot of skills, a lot of talent, a lot of ambition,” he said. “But there wasn’t a mechanism put in place to integrate them into the community.”
Rather than creating a program from scratch, Little did some research and discovered the clubhouse model. Literature suggests the way members interact and participate in the daily operations of the program set it apart from other services. Little says he created a network of people, a system with high performance, but he couldn’t have done it without community support and volunteers.
Computers are available for members to learn new skills, type résumés and develop newsletter and Internet abilities. Members operate a small café serving low-cost meals where they gain such employment skills such as balancing a budget, preparing food, doing inventory, taking orders and operating a cash register. Others are answering phones, entering data into computers and learning other job-related skills.
The goal is to help members eventually gain employment in the larger community, as well as to boast personal development.
Lisa Cox, assistant director of adult services at Butte County Behavioral Health, says that while a small number of consumers with mental illness may not progress, most are capable of gaining control over their lives and seeking employment. Her agency refers clients to Club Stairways for pre-employment readiness.
Programs such as Club Stairways also help reduce mental-health symptoms, she added.
Members participate in staff meetings, along with other volunteers and interns, to discuss daily activities. Last week, Bradley said, he was learning the new version of Microsoft Office, and he was assisting with a new logo design for member badges.
Bradley, who has been living in the residential homes since November, says the housing and Club Stairways help keep him off the street. He has also been successful in finding medication that deals with his depression.
Judy Siporen is learning how to input the daily sign-in sheet into a computer database program. She volunteers at least once a week to give back and to be around people. Siporen is a former resident of Stairways Recovery as well.
Another volunteer, Kristen Scott, says individuals with mental illness can use Club Stairways as a stepping stone. Scott, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, attention-deficit disorder and post-traumatic-stress disorder five years ago, says she has learned how to be proactive in her recovery. She became involved leading dual recovery-anonymous meetings through Stairways Recovery and is now pursuing her education.
“I feel so alive and free. I don’t feel I’m chained down anymore to this disease,” she said. “It’s beatable. You have to use your resources and work at it.”