For the mentally ill in Utah, the days of straitjackets are long gone. The problem now, says Peggy Timblin, is something different. Sometimes, she says, "we get niced to death."

Timblin isn't naive enough to think that stigmas and discrimination are a thing of the past for people with illnesses such as schizophrenia and severe depression. In fact, the niceness she complains about is an extension of a long-held stereotype: that the mentally ill need to be taken care of."We get niced to death," says Timblin, "until we become nothing."

The road to recovery, she argues, is not paved with bowling and macaroni art, or with decisions made by other people. What the mentally ill need, she says, is "empowerment."

Timblin is president of the Utah Consumer Advocacy Network Dedicated to Understanding, a rather cumbersome title whose acronym better sums up the group's goals: U-CAN-DU.

U-CAN-DU's officers - Timblin, vice president Larry McCleery, secretary Keith Kunzler and treasurer David Buck - are proof that the mentally ill can sometimes find more help in self-help.

Like other members of the statewide organization and of 14 local groups throughout Utah, they like to define themselves not as patients or clients, but as "mental health consumers."

The phrase connotes, if not exactly power, at least something neutral. A consumer uses goods and services. When those are poorly designed or ill-suited to his needs, the consumer might complain.

Larry McCleery, who suffers from bi-polar depression, remembers the days when he felt weakened by the mental health system.

"In the hospital, what's really asked of you is sort of like what it would be like in a concentration camp," he says. "You have to relinquish your shoelaces, your belt, your phone rights. . . . If you have any spark of individualism, it's often squashed. Compliance is viewed as the highest goal."

That model of dependency, says McCleery, is then carried out into the community, where day treatment centers sometimes offer more of the same.

"There's something terribly seductive about it," he says of the constant round of supervised activities and mindless crafts he says he encountered. "But after a period of time I noticed I became more debilitated. I became increasingly dependent. I noticed that my brain wasn't thinking nearly as sharp as it had been."

It's when you have roles and responsibilities, says McCleery, "that you start to get better."

Utah's mental health consumer groups, with memberships totaling about 1,500, are run by consumers for consumers. They provide a place to get support, have a good time and do something for the mental health community and the community at large. (See related story on C3).

The New West Civic Club meets at Alliance House, a pre-vocational "clubhouse" for the mentally ill, located in an old fire house on Main St. The other night, members met to work out last-minute details for the Alternatives '88 conference (see box) and to feel the camaraderie of talking to friends who understand.

"We get more bang for the buck for anything we do than anybody else in mental health," says McCleery about consumer groups. "Tonight, for example, we had to pay no salaries. We all brought our own refreshments, Big Gulps and stuff. We used maybe $2.50 worth of electricity. And we were helping ourselves."

According to McCleery, the mental health consumer movement has grown nationally as funding has diminished.

New West Civic Club president Nikki Callister says the group has given her a sense of purpose. "I noticed I had a choice. My life is what I make it, not what someone else decides it should be." When she was elected president, she says, "all of a sudden I was somebody. The president of a corporation. It may not be Sears, but it's a corporation."

Group members serve as advocates for their own interests by lobbying state and national lawmakers, and they work to educate the public about their diseases by speaking at schools and civic clubs.

"We have a right not to be stigmatized," is the message U-CAN-DU officer David Buck takes to his speaking assignments. People with diabetes and cancer who have to take medication aren't looked down on, he tells his audiences. If you're on psychotropic drugs you shouldn't be looked down on either.

U-CAN-DU president Timblin was first hospitalized - with straps on the bed and bars on the window - when she was a teenager. Membership in U-CAN-DU and in a consumer group in Ogden has given her confidence for the first time in a couple of decades.

Just a few years ago, she says, she was afraid to leave her house. She now speaks at national conventions and serves on an ad hoc advisory committee for the National Institute of Mental Health.

Still suffering from severe depression, Timblin does not try to pretend that even "empowerment" is enough to alter her body's biochemistry. She may not be what someone else would call content, and her peace of mind is certainly relative. But she does feel better.

"I unsuccessfully tried suicide," she explains. "And I'm mad as hell it didn't work." She pauses and then adds, "But I'm not as mad as I was."

She keeps track of noteworthy improvements. When she first started traveling for U-CAN-DU she carried a teddy bear in her purse. Now she gets by with a worry stone.