‘Stop criminalizing mental health crises,’ says Hero House NW CEO

Dec 27, 2021, 5:00 AM | Updated: 10:41 am
Hero House NW, alternative response...
First responder at an intersection in downtown Seattle. (Photo by: Jeanne Clark/Courtesy of SDOT Flickr)
(Photo by: Jeanne Clark/Courtesy of SDOT Flickr)

Jails have become de facto mental health institutions, but the question is, what do we do about it? Is there a way to handle somebody having a mental breakdown without calling the police, and is there a way to get that person healthy?

A KIRO Radio listener who has an adult son living with mental illness says they’ve learned that the police are not a good way to handle cases like this, and recommended that Dave Ross speak with Kailey Fiedler-Gohlke, chief executive officer of an institution called Hero House NW.

“Hero House NW is comprised of three clubhouses,” Fiedler-Gohlke explained. “We follow a psychiatric model of rehabilitation. So we’re really kind of that next step after clinical treatment, when people get to see their psychiatrists and their doctors. We really kind of add that community, that social community that’s often lacking with people diagnosed and living with mental illness.”

“As we know, isolation is a huge key factor, it’s a big symptom of mental illness,” she added. “So we’ve created some really well-rounded communities for people to attend on a day to day basis to really get connected with others and to not be alone in the community.”

The clubhouses are not places where people live. Members participate “at their own whim,” and get to decide how they use the clubhouse, Fiedler-Gholke said.

“Often, in a clinical treatment, you have the patient versus the doctor, the provider. And oftentimes people don’t have ownership of their own recovery, and the clubhouse offers that,” she described. “Members pick and choose how they utilize the clubhouse, with which staff they work.”

The clubhouse model does not differentiate based on people’s level of functioning or diagnosis, Fiedler-Gholke noted. The only requirement to enter and become a member is that you have a history of a diagnosed mental illness.

“That being said, we do have what we like to call our one rule within our community is to not disrupt or impact the recovery of another, meaning we don’t want to have people in the community that are having violent behaviors or that they’re unsafe to themselves or others,” she said.

Fiedler-Gholke says there have been hundreds of research articles written about Hero House NW and the clubhouse model. Outcomes have shown a reduced hospitalization rate of members versus non-members, reduced incarceration rates, and higher job placement rates.

“We even have higher rates of people returning to school and graduating,” she said.

Alternative to a police response

Over the past year and a half, Hero House NW has been focusing more attention on alternative ways to handle a mental health crisis, instead of calling 911.

Seattle councilmember: Changing how city responds to 911 calls needs to be priority

“We’ve noticed that a lot of our members have had really traumatic interactions with police, and it resulted in incarceration or being basically tossed in a county jail,” Fiedler-Gholke told Seattle’s Morning News. “And it was all because they were having a mental health crisis. So I think when we approach something like this, we need — of course, it’s a very big question, and it’s not a simple answer to solve this — I think we need to have a care response model.”

She explains that while police are needed in the community, there also needs to be a care response model that is comprised of peers and people trained to handle these crises.

“We know next summer there’s going to be a new phone number coming out called 988,” she added. “It’s going to be a mental health crisis number. Instead of calling 911, people can call 988.”

But there has also been discussion around how to respond to mental health crises in the first place.

“They’re trying out many different pilots, but one proven method that’s actually been going on for 40 years is called the CAHOOTS model down in Eugene, Oregon,” Fiedler-Gholke said. “A lot of us are trying to get that model up here in Washington because the biggest thing is we don’t want people to have to go to jail. We should stop criminalizing mental health crises.”

The idea of a program like CAHOOTS is that if someone is acting out or having a tough time, as Fiedler-Gholke explains, a team that’s familiar with how to de-escalate similar situations should be the ones to respond.

911-alternate response Health One builds momentum with South Seattle arrival

Hero House NW has three clubhouses in Bellevue, Seattle, and Everett, and has plans to expand to nine more clubhouses across Washington state.

“They won’t be under us, but they will be part of the clubhouse community,” Fiedler-Gholke said. “I think we need a clubhouse in every single community and we need those to be there for people. Because when you don’t have the appropriate services and you have the bare minimum, then that’s where that cycle starts because they can’t access the proper treatment and they don’t have anything pre- and post-hospitalization, if it gets to that point.”

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‘Stop criminalizing mental health crises,’ says Hero House NW CEO