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‘People with mental illnesses are still people’: Students empower adults to share life stories through ‘Our Stories’ book

| Wednesday, March 30, 2022

When John Wilford was first introduced to the Sunshine Clubhouse in South Bend, he heard the clubhouse was looking to start a newsletter. A former director of biotechnology equipment production, Wilford saw a row of nonfunctioning computers and went to work. He managed to get a few of the computers up and running and helped Sunshine Clubhouse begin publishing its newsletter.

Later, Wilford realized the significance of his seemingly minor contribution.

“I wasn’t thinking about it at the time, but when I stepped back from it I thought, ‘Gee, maybe I still do have something to offer,’” Wilford said.

Wilford, who was involved with the Sunshine Clubhouse for five years and its current successor, Clubhouse of St. Joseph County, for another five years, suffers from severe mental illness. The Clubhouse of St. Joseph County seeks to empower adults like Wilford who suffer from mental illness by providing them with work and social opportunities. 

Clubhouse book publishing eventCourtesy of Chris Anderson
From left to right: former Clubhouse member John Wilford and former Sunshine Clubhouse director Paul Curry at the book publishing event at the Clubhouse of St. Joseph County on Saturday.

“Clubhouse works,” Wilford, now a grandfather, said. “It really integrates people from the outside back into the community. It gets people back in and feeling like they’re worth something and they can contribute.”

Opened in 2015, Clubhouse of St. Joseph County is one of more than 300 Clubhouses around the world. All Clubhouses follow the same model. Members — those suffering from mental illness — adhere to a work-ordered day. Each day they choose tasks and chores to complete around the Clubhouse to keep it functioning.

“It’s been said that the ideal Clubhouse is somewhere where you can’t tell the difference between the members and the staff,” Notre Dame class of 2021 graduate Anna Benedict said.

The goal of this model is to allow members to focus on their skills rather than their illness.

“By giving back, they’re receiving some self-worth, and it’s critical,” Wilford said.

‘Our Stories’ connects students with Clubhouse during pandemic

Clubhouse of St. Joseph County founder Lisa Anderson has taught a seminar on mental illness at Notre Dame since 2012. Anderson’s course was funded in 2011 by Notre Dame alumna Julie Hersh Kosnik ’82. Kosnik wrote a book about her experiences battling severe depression and wanted a course where students would actually see what mental illness looks like rather than just learning about it in a clinical sense, Anderson said.

Anderson’s mental illness seminars have varied over the years, but she has regularly incorporated an immersion component into her courses. The immersion components consist of the students interacting with adults with mental illness at a setting like a Clubhouse.

However, in the fall of 2020, Anderson’s seminar was postponed due to COVID-19 restrictions. Two of Anderson’s teaching assistants, Benedict and Louise Medina ‘21, decided to search for alternatives to the usual in-person immersion component.

'Our Stories' book publishing eventCourtesy of Chris Anderson
From left to right: Anna Benedict, Clubhouse of St. Joseph County founder Lisa Anderson and Louise Medina on Saturday. Benedict and Medina started the “Stories” initiative.

They eventually came up with the idea to match Notre Dame students with Clubhouse members to help the members write memoirs. These memoirs would allow the members to detail their lives and express themselves. They were eventually compiled into a book called “Our Stories” and published. The students and members held an event Saturday to celebrate the book’s publishing more than a year after the writing process started.

People who are not neurotypical often struggle to hold a steady job and tend to socially isolate themselves, Benedict, who majored in neuroscience, said. The memoirs allowed the members to come to peace with their trauma and feel proud about who they are, she said.

“The idea at the end was that these members would then have this nice book to take home with them and keep and to be proud of and to be able to say, ‘This is me. This is how far I’ve come, and I’m proud of that,’” Benedict said. “You’re not just this trauma, you’re also everything else throughout the span of time.” 

Students and members bridge the gap

Twenty-three Clubhouse members wrote their short memoirs for the book. At the beginning of the project in fall 2020, each member was assigned two or three student volunteers. The students had primarily heard about the project through mass emails sent out by Benedict.

Students met with their members for about an hour per week over Zoom, junior Lucy Tarcha said. Tarcha said she regularly met with her partner from September through mid-December. While the groups would meet to work on the memoir, the meetings served more as an opportunity to connect.

“We would spend some time working on the memoir, but most of the time was just developing a friendship and talking about our lives,” senior Adriana Perez-Negron said. “We would talk about things we would [have] in common. And so it really became a friendship and it was very exciting.”

Clubhouse of St. Joseph County’s publishing celebration Saturday was the first time the students and members met in person. Some students who graduated traveled back for the event at the Clubhouse. 

During the ceremony, the members received their own copy of the book — which is for sale on Amazon — and said a few words about what the project meant to them. The book features artwork done by some of the members.

“I think it could be probably best summed up by several of the people that wrote in the book were brought to tears telling me about their story and the process,” Wilford said. “And some people were kind of tongue-tied. But they got up, they got their book presented to them and you could tell they felt good about it. They had contributed and they were being recognized and you could tell they felt good.”

Anderson said one of the profound effects of the project was for the students to see the range of capabilities of people who suffer from mental illness. She said one of the members who shared his story cannot read or write while one of the members has a Ph.D.

Clubhouse International is considering implementing a form of the “Our Stories” project at other locations, Anderson said. Memoir writing can be considered a form of narrative therapy, which allows people to become more comfortable with their past and trauma by putting them into a complete story.

Benedict said the project helped both students and members ditch the stereotypes that the groups may have of each other.

“If Notre Dame students have never had this experience… before where they have to get out of the classroom and experience what they’re learning about in the real world, it can be pretty jarring,” Benedict said. “It’s been a way to promote at least small healing in a way that really does justice to the power of empathy and the power of story.”

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About Ryan Peters

Ryan is a sophomore in Knott Hall from Lake Forest, Illinois. He is majoring in business analytics and minoring in constitutional studies. He currently serves as Notre Dame News Editor for The Observer. Follow him on Twitter @peterrsryan.

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