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Mental illness stigma isn't welcome at club

A satirical play using a Monopoly game board as a metaphor for life brought to light the obstacles confronting those with mental illnesses and the lack of power they often feel.

With a roll of the dice, one actor lands on a railroad, and says, "Please, Mr. Engineer don't take me to the mental hospital.'' The engineer claims there is no choice and the actor is carted off to a psychiatric hospital for another lengthy stay.

The satire, written by members and staff of the Connection Center, a clubhouse for Wood County residents recovering from mental illnesses, was performed yesterday in observance of national Mental Health Awareness week.

The center, in downtown Bowling Green, strives to empower those in recovery and help them take charge of their lives.

"It's a place where persons with mental illness feel they can belong. We're big into fighting the stigma of mental illness,'' Chris Lyon, the center's rehabilitation services manager, said.

"Members have a big say in what goes on here,'' said member Lottie Wilson, 48, of Bowling Green. Members work with trained staff on every aspect of daily operation to gain a sense of ownership, she said.

Connection Center offers career counseling, arts and crafts, outreach programs, and business skills training. Members put out a monthly newsletter, run a snack bar, sell arts and crafts, and do community service projects.

They recently raised $150 for the disaster relief fund to help victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and $200 for the Wood County Humane Society.

The goal, Mr. Lyon said, is to make members feel they are a productive part of the community.

The model is based on the Fountainhouse Clubhouse in New York, established in 1948. The country has 300 to 400 clubhouse programs, Mr. Lyon said.

Toledo and Lima offer programs similar to the Wood County center, which is supported by Behavioral Connections, a mental health agency, through the Wood County Alcohol, Drug Addiction, and Mental Health Services board.

The clubhouse started in 1999, about four years after Wordhouse Place, a similar program funded through a separate agency, folded.

"We started with a cell phone, a wood stool, and a couple pads of Post-it notes,'' Mr. Lyon said. Now the center serves 25 to 30 people daily and has become a close-knit community filled with laughter and encouragement.

"Everybody's everybody's friend," said Mary Robertson, 74, of Perrysburg. "The first day I came here, I loved it. And, on the bus on the way home, I said, I've found my second home. "

Ms. Robertson said she's suffered from depression for about 17 years and had spent many lengthy stays in mental hospitals. She was apprehensive about going to the center and wasn't sure she'd find the support she needed.

Now, her eyes light up when she talks about the clubhouse. "I'm so enthused about this," Ms. Robertson said. "It's just a wonderful thing. I wish all towns could do it. "

Members include people who are recovering from severe mental health illnesses including major depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. Eligible members must meet criteria established by the government. Those with less severe mental illnesses are considered volunteers and are not part of the facility's decision-making process.

When members walk through the center's door, illness isn't an issue.

"You can talk about it if you want to, but you don't have to, " Mrs. Wilson said. "When they come here, they feel safe and comfortable knowing others have a mental illness too. We know no one is going to put us down or laugh at us. They don't patronize us, and they let us learn at our own pace.''

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