Polaris House creates a sense of belonging

New forum for psychiatric rehabilitation features self-directed care

Posted: Tuesday, February 26, 2002

A daytime gathering place for people with mental illness is scheduled to open soon in Juneau.

Polaris House, to be run by its users, will be provided as an arm of the Juneau affiliate of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. It will be a drop-in center, probably open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., for people suffering from mental illness.

The 1,300-square-foot house, on the campus of Gastineau Human Services near Lemon Creek, can hold 50 people. Mental health activist Susan Phipps expects it to be half-full as soon as it opens.

Polaris House's mission is "to provide consumer-directed and operated programs, promoting self-sufficiency and recovery for mental health consumers." Respect and opportunity are key concepts in its operation, said Phipps, who is program director for Polaris.

"At least two out of five people in jail have been identified as persons who experience mental illness," she said. "It's becoming more recognized that mental illness is very involved in all our social problems.

"We want to promote self-sufficiency," Phipps added. "If a lady is sleeping on the floor and her apnea machine won't work, we want to try to find her a bed." (An apnea machine prompts people who stop breathing during sleep to continue taking breaths.)

Michael Needham, a three-year resident of Juneau, attended a Feb. 8-9 training session about Polaris House. "I think this will really be a great place," said Needham, who is on the Polaris House steering committee and a board member. "It will give members a place to come to, meaningful work and meaningful relationships, plus a right to belong."

Sharon Lobaugh, president of NAMI Juneau, said, "It's been a dream of families for some time that we would have an independent, consumer-operated program addressing work and other productive action.

"I expect (Polaris House) to fill an uplifting role," Lobaugh said. "It is not meant to compete with the clinical work of (Juneau Alliance for Mental Health). It has the role of self-advocacy and peer work so people can help themselves in accessing change in their lives. It empowers them."

A $54,800 grant from the state Division of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities funds the project. Self-directed care is much less expensive than inpatient care, said Phipps.

"And you can draw on people who are willing to mentor and share, whether it is decorating, finding furniture, teaching cooking, Internet use or nutritional meal planning," she said.

Polaris also would like to open a residence where life skills could be taught. "We are activity seeking endowments and grants for a residence," Phipps said.

Mental illness is more common in the general population than cancer, diabetes or heart disease - but less talked about. She hopes Polaris House will inspire debate and draw attention to mental illness.

Polaris House is based on the Fountain House model from New York City, which emphasizes deinstitutionalization and voluntary involvement.

"The big thing for the movement is for people to be heard, to be valued," Phipps said. "It is not about mental illness. It is about being a person with mental illness." Polaris House will be the first example of the Fountain House model in Alaska, she said.

For mental health services in Juneau, call NAMI Juneau at 780-6775. To reach Phipps at Polaris House, call 780-6775.

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at achandonnet@juneauempire.com.

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