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(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) John Barnhurst, left, a member of Alliance House, works in the kitchen with staff member Lia Espericueta preparing lunch. The nonprofit Alliance House, located in an old fire station at 1724 S. Main in Salt Lake City, serves people who suffer from severe and persistent mental illness. As members, they participate in all aspects of keeping the house functioning, whether it be cleaning, cooking, grocery shopping, meal planning, accounting, or drafting the house newsletter. Staff, board members and members all relate on an equal footing and the goal is that members get strong enough to work outside jobs again and re-enter society.
‘I was a walking zombie’ — a Utahn’s journey back to mental health
Mental health » Program helps “members” rebuild lives through work, making them self-sufficient.
First Published Jan 20 2013 01:01 am • Last Updated May 05 2013 11:33 pm

With each day, Robert Grey gets back more of his life.

Diagnosed with bipolar disorder in his late 30s, the Salt Lake City resident, now 43, recently achieved two hard-fought milestones: getting off government-funded disability and becoming self-sufficient again.

He credits Alliance House, a nonprofit day center at 1724 S. Main St. in Salt Lake City, with providing the support that is helping him recover.

At a glance

Facts about mental illness and recovery

Mental illnesses are biologically based brain disorders that fall along a continuum of severity.

About 1 in 5 » U.S. families affected by mental illness

About 1 in 17 » In the U.S. suffer from serious mental illness

Widespread » Mental disorders make up four of the 10 leading causes of disability in the U.S. and other developed countries.

Source: National Alliance on Mental Illness

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"I was a walking zombie," Grey said of his mental state three years ago before starting his journey with Alliance House, which provides a hub of activity for him and hundreds of other "members" who find or rediscover valuable life skills inside its doors.

Now marking its 25th year, Alliance House is one of 340 certified "Clubhouse Programs" in 30 countries that serve adults with severe and persistent mental illness, said Executive Director Daniel Braun. That status is earned by adhering to 36 standards designed to foster equality between members and staff in rebuilding shattered lives through a tool called the "work-ordered day."

Salt Lake City’s site serves as one of 10 international training bases for the innovative model, Braun added. In addition to Alliance House, Utah also has two other certified clubhouses, in Utah and Tooele counties. By involving members in productive work, the program focuses and builds on their strengths, talents and abilities rather than their mental illnesses.

That work runs a gamut of tasks that keep the entire clubhouse functioning, such as newsletter production, accounting, data entry, reception duties, statistics, correspondence, meal planning, preparation, cashiering, janitorial work and lawn care.

The Salt Lake City clubhouse serves about 50 members a day, said Development Director Sue Weaver. Each one has been referred by medical professionals and must have a serious, persistent mental illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, severe depression or anxiety.

Membership is voluntary and has no time limits — as set forth in the 36 standards. Members set their own goals and pace, with the ultimate aim being re-entry into society.

"We focus on employment, education, housing and relationships," Braun said, "and those relationships are the key glue that holds it all together."

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Shaking the stereotype » After the shootings in Newton, Conn., the National Rifle Association called for putting more guns in schools and building a bigger database of people who have been treated for mental illness.

In response, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) condemned the NRA’s stance, arguing it would further stigmatize and discourage those who need real help.

"We need to sit down and have a real conversation," said Rebecca Glathar, NAMI Utah’s executive director.

Rather than easy answers and quick fixes, Glathar hopes the horrific events at Sandy Hook Elementary spur real dialogue and meaningful change.

"The first step would be to look at our mental health system and ask if we’re adequately funding it and whether people who need the services can get them." Glathar said. "For the most part, I would say no."

Glathar praised Alliance House for giving people with mental illness a place to socialize, gain skills and contribute to society.

"We are social creatures and need that interaction," Glathar said, adding that people with mental illness are often isolated by societal stigma and fears.

It works because members work » Equality goes beyond lip service at Alliance’s old firehouse turned clubhouse.

"We have members participating in everything we do. They have as much ownership and investment in the clubhouse model as anyone else does," said Bill Rice, a longtime member who battled chronic depression and now serves on Alliance’s board.

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