House of Healing for Mental Health in Hawaii

This state program offers mental healthcare in a clubhouse setting.

Clubhouse member Michael Kirk (in blue shirt) and Clubhouse coordinator Kathleen Rhodes Merriam (in lavender) participate in a group discussion.

Photo: Matt Mallams and Elyse Butler

"Being on disability is like living in prison,” said Michael Kirk, 45, of Makiki. “There’s no purpose in life; it’s bed to couch and couch to bed,” he adds, describing the first years of the 10 he has spent living with a permanent disability brought on from a mental illness, one that prevented him from maintaining a stable career.

Help came for Kirk when he discovered the Diamond Head Clubhouse, a member-driven, psychosocial rehabilitation program for adults with serious and persistent mental illness, funded by the Adult Mental Health Division of the state of Hawaii’s Department of Health. Not only has his experience at the Clubhouse given him a purpose and drawn him out of isolation, he’s been able to find work through the clubhouse’s Transitional Employment program.

“I knew I needed something, some sort of social engagement that was going to stimulate me to develop myself again,” Kirk said. He found this at the Clubhouse, where membership comes with privileges and responsibilities. The structured day programs are run by a small staff but rely mostly on members to cook and serve meals, tend to a garden, write the newsletter, staff the snack bar and plan social activities.

“You are not a client or a patient here, you are a member of a club,” said Kathleen Rhodes Merriam, the statewide Clubhouse coordinator. “People get better by being colleagues, by being a partner in recovery.”

The state provided 10 Clubhouses on four Islands that served 1,100 people last year. The Clubhouses use an evidence-based practice model that has been shown to be a cost-effective way to rehabilitate psychiatric patients and reduce the need for hospitalizations. “People transition from being a mental patient to having an identity separate from their illness. A lot of people think that mental illness is a death sentence,” said Merriam. “We are actually able to see people get better and experience recovery.”

At the Clubhouse, Kirk found a purpose for his days, preparing meals or working in the business office. Last year, via the Transitional Employment program, Kirk started working as a courtesy clerk at Times Supermarket, earning enough money to eliminate the need for some public support.

On his own, Kirk may not have taken this step. The stigma of mental illness and the task of explaining why he had been out of work for so long was intimidating. Staff at the Clubhouse handled this process for him, and now he is preparing a vocational plan to set up future employment opportunities. Last year, Clubhouse members earned more than $600,000 from private employment.

The Clubhouses are open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily and are available to those who do not have private health insurance. For more information, or a referral to a Clubhouse, contact the state’s ACCESS line at 832-3100.

Did you know? The number of adults in Hawaii who live with a serious mental illness: 32,000. (National Alliance on Mental Illness)