Editor’s note: This story mentions suicide.
Lane Delventhal was diagnosed with learning disabilities and mental illnesses at a very young age, and it affected how people treated him.
“Most of my life I’ve been looked at like I have the plague,” he said. “I mean, when I freak out, people are like, ‘What the hell?’” And then they just leave and avoid him.
He said in the past he never felt like he fit in and never felt fully comfortable. Even at drop-in centers run by mental health organizations, Delventhal said he never felt free of the gaze and rules of a therapist.
“It was kinda like a dog park with shock collars,” he said of the mental health centers. “Because we’re all allowed to play. But if we did something wrong, ‘Ooh, nope!… We’re going to talk about this. You’re not going to do this!’”
But he said things are different for him at the Northern Hope Center in Fairbanks, an organization he helped create. If he has a mental health breakdown or freaks out about something, he said, his friends at the center will ask him if he’s okay and talk about it without judgment. He does the same for them.
“I can’t tell you how much that means,” he said. “That is the most important thing in my life – being there for others like that and having them be there for me.”
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The Northern Hope Center is a free, member-driven drop-in center for adults with serious mental illnesses that opened in 2015. The members first met in church basements and at a local community center before getting their own long-term space. It’s funded mostly by grants and some individual donations. The center offers meals, space to do crafts or work on computers and rides to run errands and go to appointments. There aren’t any mental health clinicians at the center, but staff will help people access care if they ask for it.
To become a member, you just need a signed affidavit from a medical provider saying you have a mental illness. Members choose the activities, set the rules and hold a majority of the seats on the governing board. Unlike other spaces, they have ownership over the center.
Delventhal, the original board president, said that people spend time there because they choose to, not because they are required by therapists or are court-ordered to be there.
“I call it ‘Cheers’ without the alcohol,” he joked, referencing the 1980s sitcom. “When you come in, everybody knows your name. They know who you are, they know your quirks.”
“You can just be you,” board member Anna Mouton said. “You don’t have to put on any airs or anything. You can just relax and chill and be yourself.”
For member, custodian and artist Leo Kasak, it’s like no other place in his life. Here he feels free to express his emotions.
“There’s respect here,” he said. “I’ve never really been to a place with respect.”
Kasak takes pride in the space, showing off his colorful paintings and drawings on the walls of the large common room. They’re mixed with other decorations hanging above tables and chairs for meals and games, a large, squishy couch, and a row of computers in the back. The open atmosphere of the center, its staff and its members affect his behavior.
“When I’m here, I’m just more respectful of other people, which is a change for me,” he said.
Centers like Northern Hope exist around the world, though it’s unclear how many there are.
The first documented advocacy organization following a similar peer-led model was founded in 1969 in Portland, Oregon, according to Susan Rogers, director of the National Mental Health Consumers’ Self-Help Clearinghouse. It was called the Insane Liberation Front, organized by people with psychiatric histories and “dedicated to liberation from psychiatry,” Rogers wrote in an email.
“Today, there are many such organizations in nearly every U.S. state and territory, including varied and sophisticated models, such as peer-run crisis respites, which are an alternative to psychiatric hospitalization,” she wrote.
Northern Hope Center member Heather Plaster said that without the center, she would be dead.
“Literally,” she said. “Northern Hope Center and my dog are the things that keep me going.”
“Four years ago I had no friends. I was very lonely and depressed,” she said. “Now I come here every single day – weekdays – because it makes me feel good to socialize with other people now. And I have friends I can talk to and call. It’s really made a big change in my quality of life, coming here.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health problems or having thoughts of self-harm or suicide, there are many resources to help. Careline Alaska is always available at 1-877-266-4357 (HELP). You can also contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741. View warning signs of suicide from the National Institute of Mental Health.
This story is part of an ongoing solutions journalism project at Alaska Public Media about destigmatizing mental health. The project is funded by a grant from the Alaska Mental Health Trust but is editorially independent.