As I was next to a coworker inputting data last week, I sat straight up in my pink chair, spun towards him and said, “What am I going to do without Claire* in my life?” While he chuckled, I settled back and realized that in a week’s time, I would no longer be serving at Threshold Clubhouse; I would no longer be working alongside the member, Claire* as well as all of the other members. Sinking further in my chair, a profound feeling of loss hit me. I’m going to miss this place.
That epiphany enlightened the dual impact of service in my time in North Carolina this summer. Previously, I assumed civic service had a singular directionality. Those who serve bring a combination of passions and skills from the serving party, they reach another population, and then help in whatever way they can. However, few people see the other side. Few people see how the population changes the server. Never could I have predicted how immersive service would touch my life in such a profound way. Working at Threshold has improved skills, altered my perspective, increased my empathy, and most importantly, it extended my family.
Academics and practitioners in fields of policy, and even health, unknowingly characterize populations in need with heuristics, treating them as public expenses or liabilities rather than people. The beauty of immersive civic service is that such a tendency is nearly impossible. Rather than studying generalized models of decision making, service of economic development involves personal confrontations with people, aiding them as they strive to achieve their next steps in life. Specifically for mental health, rather than viewing reliably reported questionnaires and examining deviations from the normal, I was interacting with the complexity that members actually face living as patients with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, or another persistent mental illness.
More importantly, I was interacting with people rather than some combination of symptoms. I met those who aspired to write books and design fashion. I met those who sculpt and paint. I met those who served our nation in different periods of wartime. I met those who once were enrolled in college and plan to return. At some point, the lines between “mental health patient” and “friend” blurred until they were indiscernible. Thus, the lines between mental health as an academic pursuit and as a personal passion became indiscernible, too.