By B.C. Kowalski
Craig Lauber is 36. He’s starting to wonder where it is he will go next year.
For nearly nine years, Lauber rarely left the house. He’d go out once per month, but otherwise his social anxiety made leaving the house a seemingly impossible task.
After a suicide attempt nearly seven years ago, his therapist suggested checking out the Community Corner Clubhouse. The clubhouse provides a supportive environment for those with mental health issues. It provides a place to socialize with others in a similar position, where there is no judgment and everyone is cognizant that their fellow club members might or might not be ready to talk and socialize yet. It’s a place to gain acceptance.
Sometimes that takes time. Lauber remembers his first time showing up at the clubhouse seven years ago. “I was absolutely terrified and overwhelmed,” Lauber told City Pages in a conference room at the Clubhouse, located on Third Avenue on Wausau’s west side. “There were so many people.”
People there were friendly — everyone tried to shake Lauber’s hand to show friendliness. He took it that way too, but it was way too much for someone who rarely ever left the house and wasn’t used to social interaction. “The second time, the therapist said ‘don’t shake his hand,’” Lauber recalls.
The person who was the director of the clubhouse, and is now his therapist, said he didn’t think Lauber would every come back. “Here I am, seven years later.”
It happened slowly. Lauber spent the first six months to one year showing up but then hiding in the corner. Lauber explains that social anxiety is like a teeter totter, with social isolation on one side and social anxiety on the other. Only when the loneliness outweighs the social anxiety does one go out and try to talk to people.
Lauber says he doesn’t recall any one moment where he started interacting at the clubhouse. But gradually he began to interact with more people, and is now a full-fledged member, showing up at the clubhouse nearly every day.
But those days could be coming to an end. Lauber and the other 100 or so active members at the clubhouse might not have a clubhouse to visit. North Central Health Care, which is now under stricter county control following a reorganization earlier this year, is looking to cut costs. The organization under new leader Mort McBain, a former county administrator himself, asked the county board not to fund the clubhouse for next year. Cutting off the funding essentially means the end of the clubhouse.
It’s something McBain signaled earlier in the year — that operational shortfalls at the tri-county health care organization will likely mean cuts are coming. NCHC is tasked with performing the services counties under state law are required to provide. The organization also performed a number of needed services in the community that are not required.
The clubhouse is not one of those state statute mandated services. It’s not required by law, but as many of its members will attest, it is definitely required by the people who go there.
The proposed closure comes at a time when mental health challenges are on the rise. City Pages has reported on the Youth Risk Behavior Surveys, a bi-annual report that comes out surveying children about their mental health. Each report has worse results than the last. And the latest, which will include effects from COVID and still hasn’t come out yet, is likely going to show an even worsening mental health situation.
So it seems like a pretty bad time to shut down a place that helps people with mental health issues.
But fortunately, there might be some hope on the horizon.
Why it’s closing
Essentially, it comes down to money. An earlier City Pages investigation found that in 2020 North Central Health Care had a $3.9 million budget shortfall and, according to interim Executive Director Mort McBain, 2021 had a shortfall that was pretty similar. The organization came into 2022 with a budgetary shortfall of $2.1 million, McBain says. Cuts needed to be made.
The North Central Health Care executive committee, which now has much more power over the organization following the reorganization the county (along with Lincoln and Langlade county boards) approved last year, decided to take a look at all the programs NCHC offers, McBain told City Pages.
Programs were divided into those the county must provide under state statute, and ranked projects based on how far away from those mandated programs they were.
“We said in order to balance the budget, we need to get a handle on what it is we do here,” McBain says. ‘What are the most important programs we provide? What are the mandated programs we need to have by statute? And are there programs we could discontinue that would save us money?”
The Clubhouse, as well as several others, likely won’t make the cut.
McBain says there are a couple of programs either at NCHC or in the community that can help fullfil the need. Adult day services could handle some people’s needs, he says, and other programs in the community might be able to serve others. There are services that can help with job hunting and skills, he says. He points to Adaptive Communities on Sixth Street as a potential place for some of the clients depending on their needs. “Some of our clients from Clubhouse go there already,” McBain says.
There isn’t a definite date yet on when Clubhouse might close. The three staff members will be moved to other places in the organization. That will help NCHC, McBain says, because as with nearly every employer nowadays finding staff is a challenge.
The clubhouse costs $260,000 per year to maintain, of which Marathon County contributes $92,000, McBain explains to City Pages.
Other possibilities were thrown out, such as Clubhouse operating with only one staff member. McBain entertained that as a possibility. NCHC owns the clubhouse building, so most of the expense of the clubhouse comes from labor.
Future hope for the clubhouse
Another possibility, and one its manager is working on, is thathe t clubhouse keeps operating. Just not by NCHC.
Manager Mike Frankel told City Pages he’s already had meetings with foundations and other potential donors to find a way to keep the clubhouse going. The clubhouse is important — referrals to the clubhouse come from therapist and crisis counselor, he says. “They need a place to belong, to fit in,” Frankel says.
Frankel is optimistic a solution can be found. He displays a tattoo on his arm during the interview that involves the word hope. Frankel says he is maintaining the hope that a solution can be found to keep the clubhouse going for its members. McBain says there about 14 people per day at Clubhouse, and according to Frankel about 100 active members total. His estimates are that there are about 16 to 20 people per day.
There seem to be about one dozen members the day I visit, on a Monday. It didn’t take long to find people to share their experience at the Clubhouse and why it’s important in their lives.
Kelly Kaufman drives from a small village called Embarrass to Clubhouse, roughly a one-hour drive every day. Like many future clients, Kaufman was very nervous her first day attending. That was 18 years ago, and now she attends the clubhouse about three to four times per week.
“It stops me from isolating, which makes my depression and bi-polar worse,” Kaufman says.
Another person messaged City Pages to say how important Clubhouse is to her son. She said it was important to her son and others as “a place to call a home away from home where they can just be themselves without judgment or stigma.”
As I swung by to take a photo of the building, I met another man who told me how much the clubhouse meant to him. The community helped him stay sober for ten years, he told me. We talked about the challenges around mental health issues. “And now they want to shut down the only place where people can go!” he said.
Mental health has continued to be a growing concern in the community. Data from the Youth Risk Behavior Surveys have gotten worse and worse, and the report from post-pandemic is expected to be worse. A study this year from Pew Research found that 37% of teens said they had a mental health struggle. Area health organizations and schools partnered up in a consortium to bring better mental health counseling to schools, and the Wausau School District successfully asked voters for money to fund more school mental health professionals.
And even among adults, a 2021 Pew Research survey showed nearly half of those surveyed had little to no hope for the future.
So the pending clubhouse closure seems to come at an inopportune time.
Nothing is entirely settled. The Marathon County Board could include funding for the clubhouse in its budget afterall, though it was instructed by the executive committee not to. (And the county’s contribution is only $92,000 of the total amount.)
A number of people gathered for a listening session on Aug. 30, and on Aug. 25 a few people gathered outside the NCHC campus to protest the decision. And every member of the county’s Health and Human Services Committee Aug. 31 expressed interest in keeping the Clubhouse in one way or another.
Will there be a clubhouse for people with mental health challenges to go this time next year? Right now, it’s hard to say. But with interest so high in the community for keeping something like this, and with the challenge of mental health worsening every year, it makes one wonder what things will look like in the Wausau area without the clubhouse.