Mental Illness: The Person Behind a Diagnosis

Mental illness was a barrier that kept Brent Parrish from reading fluently.

His childhood education didn’t address his mental health and kept him from reaching his full potential. Parrish, who is in his 50’s, watched President Barack Obama’s farewell address in January, and he didn’t understand some of the complex topics.

He wanted to know more, and this time, he had the right connections. He walked into Club Nova in Carrboro and said he wanted to become better at reading. The staff there helped him find Orange Literacy, where he improved his reading, writing and computer skills. At the same time, the people around Club Nova’s clubhouse provided him with companionship and a shared sense of purpose.

“We learn things from each other,” he said.

Parrish has been a member of Club Nova for about five months now, and it’s already made a difference in his life. The rehabilitation center uses a clubhouse model to provide a place of solace and acceptance — but also structure and stability — for people in the community who struggle with mental illness.

Mental illness can affect every aspect of a person’s life, including employment, education and social life — among other things. Maintaining relationships with family and friends or forming new relationships can be hard, said Brittany Johnson, the resource development coordinator for Club Nova.

At Club Nova, members are referred by a medical professional, but they decide how much time to spend there or which resources to seek, allowing them to rebuild their lives on their own terms.

“We see the person — not the illness,” Johnson said.

Brittany Johnson: More like a family

Brittany Johnson walked into the dining room at Club Nova’s clubhouse. She saw Brent Parrish and his friend sitting at the dining room table with empty plates. What are they up to? she asked, greeting them by name.

She repeated the question to everyone she ran into — and noticed when someone who is normally there was missing. She remembers specific things about each person, such as where they work or what they like. Their artwork hangs on the wall and their pictures sit on the mantle.

This kind of personal interaction and community is different than other nonprofits where she has worked.

“We’re like a family here,” Johnson said. “We like to see our family.”

Johnson doesn’t mind working on Thanksgiving and Christmas. The Club Nova community will cook a nice meal together — five turkeys — and sit together to celebrate. She helps plan trips to the beach and the mountains for the members, but she also helps them get jobs in the community or works with them in the administrative office. “We are all on the same playing field,” Johnson said.

Maxine Schroeder: Using firsthand experience

That’s not to say that Johnson doesn’t have her hands full with work. Club Nova has outgrown its space on Main Street in Carrboro. Part of Johnson’s job is planning and fundraising for a new space — which has a price tag of $4 million. The project is still in the quiet phase of strategizing, and it is Johnson’s job to get the word out about what Club Nova is.

“My goal as the resource development coordinator is to have as many people possible join us for tours of the clubhouse,” Johnson said. “Tours are the best way to explain our unique model and offer community members the opportunities to see it in action.”

Maxine Schroeder drove past the Club Nova thrift shop for years without really knowing what else was there.

Then last summer, she took a tour to explore the internship opportunities and found a lot to love about its mission. Schroeder is a master’s student of social work at N.C. State University, and needed an internship. But her own experiences with mental health systems made the clubhouse approach appeal to her.

“I just got such a good vibe when I first visited here,” she said.

Now, as an intern, she works on different tasks around the clubhouse, wherever it is needed, but her main priority is to just talk to the members. The conversations between Schroeder and the members range from hobbies, to what they’ve been up to that day, to just checking in.

“After a while, you start building relationships with people,” Schroeder said. Previously, Schroeder wanted to work with kids. Now, she is switching her focus to mental health.

Eric Sullivan: Practice makes life easier

Eric Sullivan spent 20 years shutting himself off from other people. He didn’t hold a steady job, he had few friends, he was unable to try new things. Working with a mental illness felt like he was keeping a secret: No one understands when your struggles keep you from coming to work, he said, and you don’t feel like you can explain.

He joined Club Nova a year ago. “I’ve just had a lot of good, just good interactions,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve had any kind of argument with anyone. I just find the people here really accepting and not judgmental and supporting.”

During his first month at Club Nova, Sullivan tackled big projects, like going to a design firm in Raleigh or sending thank you notes to donors.

He said at first it felt like something he couldn’t handle. Now Sullivan works 20 to 30 hours per week in the administrative and membership offices. He tracks health and safety protocols, like drills, inspections and first aid kits — among other responsibilities.

“It’s gradual that my confidence and my creativity has just like been bolstered and really increased month after month,” he said.

He compared his improvement to his mother’s struggle with an injured shoulder. He described her shoulder as “frozen,” unable to move easily. But with therapy and practice, his mother’s shoulder starting working again. And so did he.

Club Nova was selected as grantee for the Foundation’s Capacity Building Partnerships program in 2016 based on their excellent track record of addressing poverty through integrated mental health and employment services.  As part of the program, Club Nova completed an organizational assessment and received funding for staff training and website upgrades that will ultimately lead to increased efficiency and operational resilience.  In 2016, Club Nova was also selected as a winner of a GSK IMPACT Award – a program managed by Triangle Community Foundation in partnership with GSK that recognizes outstanding organizations contributing to a healthier Triangle Region.