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In the 2013 edition of The Associated Press stylebook, a new entry on mental illness advises journalists to avoid “descriptions that connote pity,” like afflicted with, suffers from or victim of. Pity is a passive emotion, encircled in a closed loop, offering few solutions. At Bridge House, a voluntary drop-in center for adults living with persistent mental illness in the Greater Bridgeport area, the people who use the services there are not victims of mental illness. Nor are they patients or clients, other terms often used in the mental health-services world. Rather, the people who access services at Bridge House are called members. These choices in language reflect the larger philosophy that undergirds the work that Bridge House does.

“We focus on a person’s wellness, not their illness,” says Glen Carpenter, a member who led a recent tour of the facility. “This is a place that you can come to and there’s no failure.”

Located in a sprawling Victorian house on Bridgeport’s Fairfield Avenue, Bridge House provides meals, housing support, advocacy, employment assistance and a young-adult program for those living with mental illness in an avowedly nonclinical setting. Bridge House operates on what is known as the “Clubhouse model of psychosocial rehabilitation,” and broadly speaking, works to integrate those living with chronic or persistent mental illness into the larger community through a battery of support services. Bridge House attacks the task of community integration with a holistic methodology that helps the organization’s roughly 240 active members develop employment, money-management and socialization skills. Because the program is completely voluntary, members come and go as they please, and on any given day, between 50 and 80 members will come through the door to access various services.

Bridge House is one of two Clubhouse-style facilities in the state to be fully accredited by Clubhouse International, which maintains 37 distinct standards covering governance structure, organization and what type of services are offered. (The other is Prime Time House in Torrington.)

Founded in 1986, Bridge House was established as part of a wave of new community-based approaches to mental health care that resulted from the era of deinstitutionalization, a gradual shift in mental-health policy that saw large, long-stay psychiatric hospitals, such as Fairfield Hills in Newtown, shuttered. While primarily the result of changes in thinking that prioritized the civil and human rights of the mentally ill, the movement also incorporated notions of budgetary restraint and fiscal responsibility. Those who can access services in the community cost the state and associated authorities less money than those who are hospitalized, goes the thinking.

As with so many community organizations and support services across the state, Bridge House is bracing for budget cuts. Most of Bridge House’s funding comes from the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, which is at risk of cutbacks as lawmakers in Hartford tackle the state’s current fiscal crisis.

According to Executive Director Mary Ellen McGuire, Bridge House and its allies in other psychosocial day programs have been making the case that they are the most “cost-effective” use of state dollars. “If you were to shut down Bridge House, you could probably triple the amount of money it would cost to take care of our members in other situations, whether it’s the hospital, a jail cell or being homeless. We’re the first line of defense for them because we see when someone is not well,” she says.

One of the crown jewels of the Clubhouse model is the transitional-employment program, which connects members with local employers like Homegoods and the Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport for six- to nine-month stints of paid work. Bridge House employees agree to guarantee coverage for any member who cannot make their shift. According to coordinators of the program, employers will occasionally hire Bridge House members for full-time work after their transitional-employment period.

For Samantha Burton, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and has been a member of Bridge House for 10 years, the facility plays a central role in her life. Bridge House “changes lives, it changes people’s minds. It helps you be more productive, and helps you achieve your dreams and goals. You’re not alone. This is like a safe haven for people with mental illness,” she says.

Bridge House will host a legislative breakfast to lobby lawmakers on May 8, and hosts open houses every Wednesday at 10:30 a.m. Donations can be made at bridgehousect.org, or by contacting Nichole René at nrene@bridgehousect.org or 203-335-5339.

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