Janice Hamilton, a former electorate assistant for a federal politician, lay in her bed staring at the ceiling.
She wouldn’t phone anyone, talk to anyone or even think about leaving the house. She’d stay there all day – lying, staring, sleeping. Days, weeks, months, even years would go by. Life had no meaning, no hope.
Her friends had vanished long ago, she had no job and only her mother wanted anything to do with her.
Since her first psychiatric episode in 2000, when she was diagnosed with schizophrenia, she has lost four years of her life.
Janice was 30 when she had to leave her high-powered job.
‘‘I started telling lies and making things up – I had a total meltdown,’’ she says.
‘‘I was aggressive with the family and hated everyone. At one stage I thought there were bugs all over the house.
‘‘While I knew something was wrong, it took me a while to accept I had a mental illness. I refused to believe it until my psychiatrist taped me. When I heard myself I was in shock. That’s when I realised I had to start taking medication.’’
The stigma and social isolation that comes with such an illness was oppressive. At times Janice, now 41, would become so overwhelmed with the ‘‘nothing’’ in her life that she would hide under the covers.
That’s how she lived until 18 months ago, when her psychiatrist encouraged her to attend Clubhouse, an initiative dedicated to helping people with mental illness recover.
On her first morning, Janice forced herself to get out of bed and get dressed. She had no idea her life was about to change and that in six months she would be at university, attending lectures and tutorials, gaining credits for exams and assignments. The acceptance and belonging she found at Clubhouse was all she needed to get her out the front door and reclaim her life.
‘‘I had very low self-esteem,’’ she says.
‘‘I didn’t have anything to do. Clubhouse keeps me motivated to at least get out of bed and out of the house. It’s given me so much self-confidence. I can’t tell you how much it’s changed my life, how much better I feel now that I have support from people who really understand what I’m going through.’’
Clubhouses have limited staff, but members run the groups, balance the budget and plan activities. Members thrive in a structured, work-like day where they can contribute their talents meaningfully.
On her first day Janice was asked what she could do.
‘‘I told them I was good with computers. So from then on I started teaching other members computer skills,’’ she says.
‘‘It was such a boost to my confidence. I instantly felt like I was a valued, worthwhile person again. I felt really good about myself and that’s something I hadn’t felt for a very long time. Finally I had something to do with my life. It’s given me back my independence and self-worth.’’
Clubhouse is an international movement that began in New York City in 1948 when a handful of psychiatric outpatients decided to form their own support group.
There are now more than 350 accredited Clubhouses internationally, including two in NSW.
The Wollongong Clubhouse is not accredited because it operates only two days a week.
With an operational cost of $750 a day, it needs financial help to survive long term. It receives interest on $300,000, raised a few years ago for a purpose-built facility. That project stalled due to the global financial crisis, but the Clubhouse is still hopeful of getting finance from the state government.
Meanwhile, the Light and Hope committee and the Schizophrenia Fellowship of NSW are raising money to not only keep the Clubhouse open but also to increase its operation to five days.
Light and Hope president Dr John Hogg says that although the committee will keep up pressure for capital funding, it is mostly concerned about providing a service to people with serious mental illness.
‘‘People with a psychosis immediately withdraw from society,’’ says Dr Hogg.
‘‘So social isolation is a real issue, because it can lead to the person not complying with medications and eventually being readmitted to hospital.
‘‘Members of Clubhouses don’t suffer social isolation. And on top of that they monitor each other in relation to medication. This leads to lower readmission rates and lower incarceration rates.
‘‘There is less pressure on hospitals and the legal system. It’s a very, very powerful tool from humanitarian and practical aspects. I believe we’re really achieving something here.’’
Of the 45 Wollongong Clubhouse members, some 15 to 20 attend regularly. Professor Frank Deane of the Illawarra Institute for Mental Health estimates that 500 people in the Illawarra could benefit from belonging to such an organisation.
‘‘A Clubhouse provides structure, a work-ordered day. There are jobs to do. It broadens people’s horizons and engenders hope,’’ he says.
‘‘There’s also quite a bit of evidence that it improves well-being and social connectedness, as well as reducing hospital stays and reducing involvement with the criminal justice system.’’
Chad Samways, 29, has been coming to Clubhouse twice a week for the past five months. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder two years ago, he has spent most of that time inside his house, too afraid to go out.
‘‘I just want to shut myself inside the house all day,’’ he says.
‘‘But I come here twice a week and it gives me more confidence to do things. Most of all it’s good to be social with everyone. Even though it’s hard for me sometimes because I want to stay at home, I push myself to come.’’
Chad’s job is to tend to the garden and grow the vegetables for lunch.
‘‘I don’t have any other friends besides the ones that I’ve made here,’’ he says. ‘‘I’m much happier now and I’m a lot more confident. We’re like a little family where everyone can contribute. You can talk about things. Before I came here I used to be depressed all the time.’’
Helen Mangelsdorf, 47, suffers from schizophrenia. She says the Clubhouse has given her the confidence to move into her own home.
‘‘There’s nothing better than friendship – that’s what I’ve learned by coming to Clubhouse,’’ she says.
‘‘It’s given me new confidence and it’s helped me make some decisions about my life. I’ve found out that you can still have a wonderful life with a mental illness.’’
Another member, Sonia Gittoes, 51, who has epilepsy, has been inspired to return to study to improve her literacy and numeracy.
‘‘Coming here helps with my self-esteem,’’ she explains.
‘‘I don’t feel sorry for myself any more. I’m not pushing people away all the time. I have good friends here and we support each other. We’re all so close.’’
NSW Schizophrenia Fellowship chief executive Rob Ramjan says the international Clubhouse model is of a naturalistic environment where people are engaged in work-like activities.
‘‘That doesn’t mean that everyone will go back to work – the expectation is that everyone will have meaningful activity,’’ he says.
Only 7per cent of people with a psychiatric disability in Australia earn an income other than government benefits, says Ramjan.
In other Western countries, between 40per cent and 60per cent of sufferers are employed.
‘‘It’s my opinion that Australia is the worst in the world in assisting people with a psychiatric disability,’’ Ramjan says.
‘‘What Clubhouses do is help people get their ‘self-starter’ back.’’
Clubhouse support worker Lynne Hutton says members are supported and encouraged to work out their own life problems, such as housing and education.
‘‘What we’ve found is once a person has sorted out issues like housing, then the real issues surface for them and that’s [often] loneliness,’’ she says.