Susan Dixon: Yahara House keeps running amid crisis

Susan Dixon: Yahara House keeps running amid crisis

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John Riddle (left) works in the Catfish Cafe with Brent West on Thursday at The Yahara House in Madison. photo by Michelle Stocker (Published 5/19/10) John Riddle, who has suffered from schizophrenia for more than half his life, serves lunch at the Yahara House cafe, which provides affordable meals to members of the clubhouse.

The lights are still on in the stately old mansion at 802 E. Gorham Street.

But save for the staff, no one is home.

Before Madison shut down over the deadly coronavirus pandemic, this place called Yahara House offered sanctuary to people emerging from personal struggles with mental illness.

At Yahara House, community formed from the splintering experiences of separate, yet collective pasts. With the support of Yahara House staff — and each other — those suffering from mental illness could avoid the despair and isolation of trying to recover alone from psychiatric disorders that had interrupted their lives.

But suddenly the safety found in togetherness was shattered by the need to distance people from the insidious spread of a noxious virus. Daily visits to the Yahara House clubhouse were temporarily discontinued.

Fortunately, staff and have moved quickly to forge new ways of finding togetherness with the help of technology, creativity and some hard work.

Even before Gov. Tony Evers’ “Safer at Home” order, Yahara House began working on a plan to keep the program operating. Outreach calls were immediately instituted. Food was made available to anyone who needed it. Medications were delivered as needed.

Medical visits were rescheduled to be conducted by phone. Help filing for unemployment claims, accessing federal stimulus funds and other financial assistance was offered to people who lost their incomes.

The glue has been the use of virtual face-to-face meetings using Zoom and other technologies.

As a program of Journey Mental Health Center, Yahara House, continues to develop its technological capabilities, but recovery here is not based in talk therapy. Instead, people come together in a clubhouse setting to challenge the devastating effects of mental illness.

Mental illness — like COVID-19 — does not discriminate. It’s a life-threatening disease that affects millions of people throughout the world. But it can and is often made manageable through medication and proper therapy.

The road back to mental health is lined with successful programs like Yahara House, which is organized under standards developed by an organization called Clubhouse International.

Clubhouse International has experienced a steady rate of growth as a recovery model. Currently 320 clubhouses are operating in 34 countries.

At the core of “clubhouse” is a commitment to operating as a support system — not as a service or treatment program. Work either inside or outside the program is highly recommended and supported.

When Yahara House shut its doors to members in March, it also closed work assignments for members holding jobs in the community. But plans to re-enter the job market were developed and help with finding ways to survive loss of income was offered.

And members haven’t gone hungry. The clubhouse kitchen staff, using safety precautions and social distancing, has managed with help from a local food pantry to produce meals for delivery to members as well as other community programs.

As the days roll by and states like Wisconsin remain shut down, Yahara House department and committee meetings are conducted on a Zoom screen and staff and members are becoming comfortable with the virtual side-by-side process.

Inclusion, it has been said, is at the very heart of the clubhouse way of working. The sudden interruption of lifestyle brought on by a global pandemic has done nothing to defeat the folks at Yahara House. The lights are still on.

Susan Dixon, who resides in Jefferson, is a Yahara House volunteer and a retired journalist who has published extensively in the field of mental illness.

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