Reshaping how people with mental health challenges see themselvesQ&A with Summer Berman: Nonprofit Journal Project

Summer Berman is executive director of Fresh Start Clubhouse in Ann Arbor, a community that provides resources for people with mental illness and supports them in their recovery through meaningful work and relationships. Fresh Start is the first independent mental health Clubhouse in Michigan.

The Fresh Start Clubhouse has been operating since 2000, but it recently reopened as an independent organization. What will that change?

It is going to allow us to serve more people. We have always existed as a program of another agency that is part of the statewide public mental health system—which we are big, big fans of. We love public mental health. But becoming an independent organization will allow us to branch out. We’re working to be able to serve more people than have traditionally been eligible for public community mental health services.

What are the services that people go to the Clubhouse to receive?

The sort of long, fancy term is psychosocial rehabilitation or psychiatric rehabilitation. That is basically helping people live the life that they want to live. We are a non-clinical program, so we don’t do medication management or traditional therapy, but we help people go back to school and get jobs and live independently. I sort of think of it like, if you break your hip or you need a hip replacement, you’re going to get the intensive clinical treatment you need, that hip replacement or surgery or whatever, but then you’re going to have physical therapy after that, to help you be able to actually use that limb or that joint. We are kind of akin to that rehabilitative therapy. We’re not doing the intensive clinical treatment for someone’s mental illness, but we are helping them get back into the world and live.

What else does the Clubhouse offer?

We largely are about using community and the sense of belonging, and helping people build a sense of self-efficacy and self-confidence, to be able to have a life that is that is meaningful and is purposeful. All people need to feel like they belong. They need to feel like they have a sense of value and worth in the world, whether they have mental illness or not. But a lot of times, people with serious mental illness face a higher level of social isolation than the general population. The Clubhouse model is about that social rebuilding, through the sort of social muscles, if you will, to help people build those relationships, challenge that social isolation, and just get back into the routines that allow us to function in everyday life.
Fresh Start members and staff at the Ellsworth location
What does that look like at the Clubhouse?

It is operationalized by members being actively involved in really running the organization—so everything from making sure that the trash is taken out and that the space is clean, to writing grants and submitting our billing. In some ways, it’s sort of a voluntary work program where members come in, and they utilize their skills and their talents and their ability to work in a team. We’re very much focused on group activity and group work. It’s not so much members coming in and just receiving services—it’s members coming in and helping one another out. I might be helping someone write their resume, as a staff member, but it also might be another member helping them with their resume.

How does this approach differ from the typical model for organizations that provide similar services?

It really is about empowerment. It’s not just helping people get their needs met—it’s helping them learn how to get their own needs met, and helping them build that sense of self-confidence and self-efficacy. A lot of times, people are faced with well-meaning people telling them what their limitations are. We’ve had people whose families have told them, “You’re never going to be able to work.” Or even their doctors sometimes have said, “You’re not going to be able to do that—you can’t have a family, you can’t hold down a job, you can’t do these things.” It’s really about helping people rebuild their sense of self, and helping them create a new identity that is beyond that of patients, beyond that of clients, beyond that of sick person. It is creating an identity based on what they can do, what they want to do, what they want out of life, and really reshaping how they see themselves.

What are you looking forward to for the Clubhouse in the coming months?

This is a really exciting transition for us. We were sort of forced into it when the when the pandemic happened, but it’s been kind of a silver lining type of situation. I’m really excited for the people that we’re going to be able to serve in Washtenaw County beyond our traditional population, but I’m also excited about the ways that I hope and anticipate that this will change the landscape of Clubhouse services in Michigan, making more Clubhouses available to more people throughout the State of Michigan. The Clubhouse model has been around for more than 70 years, but many people have never heard of a Clubhouse before. We don’t want to be the best-kept secret—we want to be the best-known solution in the community.

This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change, and more are affecting their work--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.