Mental health facility to open in city


Every morning, Jackson Toby uses his daughter's blue and white tea set for his morning tea, in the bright sunroom of his Highland Park home.

Since her teens, Toby's daughter had suffered from a chronic mental illness, which at times required hospitalization. About four years ago, she took her life.

Because of his experiences with his daughter, Toby, a retired University professor said he decided he wanted to help other people with mental illnesses.

"I feel that I would like to do what I can to help keep this from happening to other people's children," Toby said.

Today, he is working with a committee to set up the Laurel House in Hub City.

The Laurel House will be based on a model started in 1948 by the Fountain House in New York City, Toby said. Currently, there are more than 200 clubhouses in the United States, but none in the Garden State, he said.

"New Jersey hasn't any," Toby said. "We will be the first one if we manage to get this off the ground."

He said proximity to the University is important because it provides a resource for students. Many ailments begin in the late teens and early 20s, he said. Stress can also trigger conditions.

"I want it to be available to Rutgers students because I have had students who have committed suicide or have tried to," Toby said.

Seung-Hui Cho, who was responsible for the Virginia Tech shooting, did not have access to a clubhouse facility, Toby said. These organizations may help students and other residents, like Cho, to feel less isolated, he said.

"[But] they have to want to get support from other people with mental illnesses," Toby said.

The Laurel House Committee is planning to open its doors to members on Oct. 6 at 316 Livingston Ave., said Annette Mayo, the president of the Laurel House Committee. The committee will rent space from the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Middlesex County, said Mayo, who is also a Douglass College alumna.

The program is focused on helping patients rejoin the work force, she said. Despite its name, the clubhouse is not a place for patients to lounge, Mayo said.

"It's focused on a work ordered day ... everybody has a job to do," Mayo said. "At some point they seek outside employment."

That way, the program can help people who have suffered a breakdown, due to a psychological ailment, to get back on track, Toby said.

"This is a wellness program, not a sickness program," said Mayo, whose daughter also suffers from a chronic mental illness.

The committee formed about two years ago when several members on the board for the housing program Triple C saw a need for a program like the Laurel House, Mayo said.

Triple C is a New Jersey housing program with support services for low income, homeless, disabled, and special needs people, according to the group's Web site. But, Toby said, there was a need for a program that would help patients reintegrate into society after recovery.

"[I] began exploring options the would be more effective than day programs or sitting around and watching T.V." said Jack Gardner, the chairman of the Laurel House Board of Directors.

Committee members attended a training session in Hartford, Conn., sponsored by the International Center for Clubhouse Development to learn more, he said.

About a year ago, the committee contacted the Middlesex County Board of Chosen Freeholders to try to raise funding for the program, Gardner said.

The Board will be providing funds for the program as well as several private donors who have contributed, Mayo said.

"We felt it was a worthwhile initiative to help them get their feet off the ground," said Thomas Seilheimer, the head of Middlesex County Human Services. "We're excited about it, and we hope it gets off the ground and does well."


Michelle Cerone

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