The Branch’s photo exhibit aims to destigmatize mental health struggles
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The Branch’s photo exhibit aims to destigmatize mental health struggles

The exhibit was featured in the “Breaking Down the Walls” event on Thursday, May 16, at the Energy Innovation Center in the Hill District.

Julie Arnheim poses with her portrait at The Branch’s “Breaking Down the Walls” event on May 16. (Photo by Abigail Hakas)
Julie Arnheim poses with her portrait at The Branch’s “Breaking Down the Walls” event on May 16. (Photo by Abigail Hakas)

In the excitement of a fundraising event held by The Branch, Julie Arnheim stood next to a poster and calmly explained to a passerby what it meant.

It was a black-and-white portrait of Arnheim with a series of statements underneath.

“I am Julie. I have survived 4 decades with mental illness. I am a 4-year brain cancer warrior. I am a daughter, a sister, and an aunt. I am an advocate. I have a dream to write a book. I am a Clubhouse colleague,” the poster reads.

The poster is part of an exhibit that The Branch, formerly Jewish Residential Services, displayed to destigmatize the mental health issues of Clubhouse colleagues, the collective term for members and staff of the Sally and Howard Levin Clubhouse. The Clubhouse was created by The Branch to provide a community and safe space for those struggling with mental illness.

It’s one of more than 300 Clubhouses following the Clubhouse International model. Clubhouse members participate in a work-ordered day where members complete tasks to help the Clubhouse function, giving them a space to socialize and be productive.

The exhibit was featured in the “Breaking Down the Walls” event on Thursday, May 16, at the Energy Innovation Center in the Hill District, a fundraiser for the Clubhouse to celebrate mental health recovery and raise awareness about stigma against those with mental illness. Posters featured 24 Clubhouse colleagues, some of whom gave speeches at the event about their experience with mental illness and their time at the Clubhouse.

Supporters of The Branch gather on May 16 at the Energy Innovation Center to celebrate the work of the nonprofit (Photo by Abigail Hakas)

Arnheim, a Clubhouse member since 2021, explained that at 9, she sent her parents a paper airplane that read, “I’m sad, and I don’t know how to talk about it.” Her mother got her a therapist, but Arnheim became suicidal by the age of 12. She began to meet with a psychiatrist, but after his cancer diagnosis ended their sessions, she had to begin searching again.

Before she graduated college, Arnheim had already worked with five different mental health professionals. She ended up in an emotionally and physically abusive marriage that led to a weeklong stay in a psychiatric ward followed by three weeks of intensive outpatient therapy in 2001. She was living in New York City at the time, and just weeks after losing her job, 9/11 happened.

Around that time, her sister moved to Pittsburgh, and Arnheim followed.

“Living in Squirrel Hill, I knew the sign for the Sally and Howard Levin Clubhouse, but I never knew what it did or who it served,” said Arnheim, whose cousin suggested it might be a good fit for her. “I found a place that is safe, that can authentically see me and allow me to flourish in ways that I was struggling. When I learned about the work-ordered day model, I really thought it was going to help me with my pink slip anxiety, and it has.”

Delaine Swearman, a Clubhouse colleague for 14 years, said she knew she wanted to be a doctor since she was 3. When she applied to college, she decided to become a physician assistant so she could enter the medical field sooner.

After beginning work in 2002, being a physician assistant became a large part of her identity. She was let go from her first job and had her first inpatient psychiatric hospitalization shortly after starting her next job. After many medical leaves, she lost her job in 2009. That day, she realized her career was over.

Part of The Branch’s photo exhibit at the organization’s “Breaking Down the Walls” event (Photo by Abigail Hakas)
“I saw myself as a total failure,” she said. “I had lost the only future that I could ever imagine. I lost the dreams of my childhood. I lost my whole identity, but then I found the Sally and Howard Levin Clubhouse. I no longer see myself as a failure, and I’ve developed a new identity. Throughout my experiences over the past 14 years, I’ve come to realize that people are so much more than just their job title.”

The issue of identity runs through all of the exhibit’s posters. Almost every statement accompanying the images begins with “I” and tells the story of Clubhouse colleagues beyond just their mental health struggles.

Swearman’s poster highlights other facets of her identity and life: She is a dragon boat paddler, an aunt and a gardener, and is mourning the loss of her cat.

Reneé Carlisle, a Clubhouse member for a little over a year, emphasized the importance of viewing people as more than their mental illness. Carlisle has struggled with depression since losing her father and brother within six months of each other.

“You don’t look at people as a mental illness. You look at them as the person they are. I’m Reneé. I’m not depressed,” she said. “People at the Clubhouse are awesome, and they look at you as a person.”

Nancy Gale, executive director of The Branch, came up with the idea of the exhibit after a vacation brought her to the Boston Logan International Airport. While walking down a hallway, she stopped at a series of black-and-white portraits paired with “I am” statements created by the Yellow Tulip Project, a nonprofit that aims to reduce stigma around mental health. Pittsburgh photographer Alan Adams took the photos after Gale proposed that the Clubhouse do its own version for “Breaking Down the Walls.”

“We want to highlight the humanity of the people that we serve and that people with mental illness have the same desires and aspirations and interests as anyone else,” she said. “Our aim is for people to not see them as other just because they have a diagnosis. They’re people.” PJC

Abigail Hakas is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.

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