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Clubhouse Visalia Brings Awareness to Mental Illness

Nov 30, 2019 11:00AM ● By Kayla Anderson

Changing People's Lives

December 2019
Story by Kayla Anderson
Photos by Sal Marro Photography

MORE OFTEN THAN one might think, people who seemingly have perfect lives are in fact battling their own inner demons. Statistics show that one in four people suffer from some form of mental illness and 60 percent of it tends to go untreated.

Tulare County resident Gwen Schrank’s energy and passion make it hard to imagine the hurdles that she had to overcome to get to where she is today – on creating the Clubhouse Visalia, an inclusive haven that drives awareness around mental health and gives members the tools they need to lead healthy, productive lives.  

Schrank’s personal struggle started decades ago when a series of overwhelming life events caused her to develop ongoing depression and anxiety. It was to the point where she couldn’t get out of bed for days on end and doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong. She eventually overcame what she was going through, but the negative voices in her head didn’t go away. In 2003, Schrank and her family moved to Visalia in hopes of a fresh start. 

In 2018, all the loneliness, anxiety and depression broke through the surface again after she got into a car accident and other events resulted in her having a breakdown. Schrank took two months off work to rest and heal, but when she went back to work, they told her that she didn’t have a position there anymore. With no job and no family, Schrank’s negative emotions sent her into a hole that she didn’t know how to get out of. 

“I felt so alone, like I had nothing left,” she says. In a time of great despair, Schrank locked herself in her bedroom and took a whole bunch of pills, wanting to sleep forever. Fortunately, her daughter Brittany came home just in time and realized her mother was inside slurring her speech. Brittany quickly called an ambulance and Schrank was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. 

“There’s no help in there. They just watch you and let you go when they feel like you’re ready,” she says. Throughout her stay, Schrank realized how broken the mental health system was. 

After Schrank was released, she decided to stay with her son for a little while in San Diego. She was offered a job at the Community Research Foundation in San Diego County that runs clubhouses built to help people combat depression and deal with mental illness. Schrank found that she fit right in.

“I remember walking through the door and I just felt so loved and accepted. It was such a great feeling,” she says. However, instead of accepting the job at the Community Research Foundation, Schrank had a vision to start her own clubhouse back in Visalia. 

After going back home, Schrank started partnering with organizations, gathering resources and buying advertising to bring mental health issues to light in Tulare County. And she became committed to helping stop the stigma surrounding mental illness. 

“People are afraid to talk about their mental illness for fear of losing their jobs, their family,” Schrank says. “But employers lose so much money through mental health issues and employees calling in sick. There needs to be more awareness, people who know who the resources are and how to get the help they need.” 

Clubhouse Visalia opened in October at 206 E. Oak Ave. in Visalia. It is a place for people to calm their minds, talk through their problems without being judged and have someone by their side to help them set goals and figure out the best way to move forward. Anyone can walk right in and start getting the help they need immediately without waiting for insurance to kick in. 

“The Clubhouse is about changing people’s lives. We’re helping people find jobs, classes and talking to landlords. Everything we do, we’re going through this together,” Schrank says. People can feel so alone in their mental illness, so Schrank assures that each member is addressed in a personal way from the minute they walk through the door. The atmosphere in a clubhouse is meant to invoke a casual, inclusive feel matched with support from fellow members dealing with similar issues.  

“We listen. We want to hear what you want to do with your life and help you, and then we’ll walk with you step by step on getting there,” Schrank says. On the back end, clubhouse staff researches housing, job opportunities, training and the like to make it easier for members to get there. 

“Our biggest priority is to stop the stigma. There are two sides to this – the more personal aspect of helping individuals set and reach their goals, and another for the community and advocacy. It’s a lot of work but we’re going to do it together,” Schrank says. •

Clubhouse Visalia • 206 E. Oak Ave., Visalia •
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 Kayla Anderson is a freelance writer, marketer and action sports enthusiast who grew up wakeboarding on Lake Shasta and learning to ski at Mt. Lassen. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Chico State University .