In the early 1960’s the general public had little understanding or compassion for people who suffered from a serious mental illness. The mentally ill were often treated as outcasts and confined to large, state operated psychiatric institutions for years of their adult lives. Most communities did not make it easy to open new mental health programs. The term “Not in My Backyard” or NIMBY refers to the strong and often very vocal opposition expressed by people when asked to support new community based programs. Fortunately, in New Haven a group of creative and forward-looking mental health professionals and volunteers came together to find new ways to engage and humanely serve people with chronic mental illness upon their discharge from the state hospitals. A “club” was formed where the mentally ill could socialize and make friends. In 1961 the concept of clubs for the mentally ill was taking root across Connecticut. New Haven’s Fellowship Club was one of twelve clubs in the state.
The Fellowship Club’s first home was in the basement of the Jewish Community Center (JCC) on Chapel Street. The group met on Monday nights for coffee, dances, and other leisure activities. Over time, the Club added programs, expanded its hours of operation, and eventually moved to Fellowship Place’s current location on Elm Street in New Haven.
Fellowship Place owes a debt of gratitude to the JCC for its willingness to host our first program. Without the JCC’s support, Fellowship Place may not have happened. Our founders, led by Phyllis McDowell, were turned down by several organizations before finding a home at the JCC. Most of the organizations approached considered a social program for the mentally ill “too risky”, evidence of the fear and stigma associated with mental illness.
Today Fellowship Place is a rich vibrant community that continues to evolve and meet the changing needs of people suffering from mental illness in the Greater New Haven area.