Charles Curie’s first job out of graduate school was at a community mental health center in Fostoria, a small town in northwestern Ohio. He headed up a program that helped people with serious mental illness transition out of the hospital into the community.
It was there that he learned the importance of empowering consumers to make their own choices rather than have a system manage their choices for them. This is the essence of the recovery model, which lays the foundation of Woodley House’s work.
“I remember one person in particular – I’ll call him Roy. He had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in his 20s. By the time I was working with him, he was in his 40s. He had been released from the state hospital and was now in the program. Roy was very disabled. He couldn’t function. He would talk about the voices waylaying him, preventing him from being able to focus on anything, to get an education or employment, despite being highly intelligent.
“But as he became stabilized on medication, I encouraged him to run for the role of chairman, which took the lead in organizing the program participants’ activities. Roy decided to do it. He ran and was voted in by his peers. And as he started to take on more responsibility, I saw him blossom and bloom. He became more confident. He was able to be a mentor to others. That just strengthened his ability to make it in the community.”
“It was clear to me early on that back then, people in institutional care—even in programs run by agencies—were consistently being managed by external structures and people. They were never able to learn how to manage their own affairs. I believe that once people see the small decisions and steps they make each day make a difference, they can gain greater levels of autonomy.”
Charley kept Roy’s experience in mind as he went on to lead state and national efforts to foster recovery by breaking down systemic barriers that prevent people from living in the community. From 2001 to 2006, he was appointed by President Bush and confirmed by the U.S. Senate as the head of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. From 1995 to 2001, he served as deputy secretary for Pennsylvania’s Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. While there, he led an effort to reframe the state hospitals as launch pads for recovery, ensuring that the first day of admission to a state hospital, a client received a discharge plan with the goal of guiding them back out into the community. He also led efforts that ultimately eliminated the use of seclusion and restraint practices in the state hospital system. Pennsylvania’s work became a model for the rest of the country and won the national 2000 Innovations in American Government Award.
Serving on the Woodley House board gives Charley an opportunity to go back to his roots and help people in his own community.
“I’ve been very active on the national level for the past fifteen years. What motivates me about Woodley House is the idea of being engaged at a volunteer level in the community where I live, with services in my own backyard. That is very meaningful to me. Woodley House is my local connection to making sure people have a life in the community. It is nice to be able to really focus on the impact that Woodley House makes on the lives of individuals.”