At Fountain House, we are constantly improving our working community approach by tackling some of the most intractable challenges in mental health. Over the years, we’ve made concerted efforts to address the specific challenges that young adults who are living with mental illness experience, but it’s proven to be a knotty problem. Why do they continue to fall through the cracks? How can we better reach them? What obstacles do they typically face? And what kinds of resources do they need?
Most young people don’t get the mental health support they need to move forward with their lives. Often, they age out of mental healthcare programs available to children and lack the necessary resources to access mental healthcare programs for adults. Considering that many mental illnesses first take hold during adolescence and early adulthood, a tremendous opportunity exists to intervene in the initial stages, potentially saving people years of disruption and struggle.
We reached out and surveyed the hundreds of young people who had come through our green doors in the past several years – those who stayed and become part of the Fountain House community, as well as those who drifted away. We compiled the data, and for months, members and staff in our Wellness Unit discussed and debated how to make our community more responsive to young adults. Eventually we developed UNITY – Understanding, Networking, and Integrating Transitional Youth.
UNITY offers young adults, ages 16 – 25, socialization, one-on-one mentoring, and help connecting to resources and programs in the community. The application process is simplified and streamlined, and entry is immediate. Participants meet weekly for eight weeks.
“We found that many young people in this age range needed answers more than anything else,” says Fountain House social worker and UNITY co-leader, Joe Shaffer. “They may be coming to understand the impact and permanence of their mental health diagnosis on their daily lives and looking to see what help and resources are available. Or they may be simply looking for a community of people in similar situations, willing and able to dialog about what it all means."
UNITY meets at 5:30 on Monday evenings in the Fountain House Wellness Kitchen, where the group begins by preparing and eating a meal together. This collaborative project eases them into the more serious work ahead and lets participants, member/mentors, and staff leaders get comfortable with one another before opening up about complex personal matters.
On one level, UNITY is an intake group that gives young people a chance to learn about Fountain House and whether full membership is right for them. On another level, it’s a problem-solving forum where young people can get help with everything from homelessness and public benefits red tape, to confirming their diagnoses and treatment options, to pursuing a GED.
In its first eight months, the UNITY program has drawn 40 participants, many referred by homeless shelters and inpatient mental health facilities. Here are some of the challenges and goals they brought with them:
- Substance abuse
- Denial of public benefits
- Lack of friends and network
- Confusion about how long-term mental illness will affect their lives
- Earn a high school diploma or college degree
- Find suitable employment
- Make connections
- Find trustworthy confidants
One of the most unique components – and biggest successes – of UNITY has been the dedication of our member-mentors. It’s a meaningful way for current members to discover that their knowledge and experience has value, that their time and advice can benefit others, and that they possess the ability, perspective, and empathy to be trusted advisers to people at their most vulnerable. UNITY has enhanced their own sense of self and helped them to stay on the path to mental health.
One mentor, Ashley, remarks, “I feel more responsible about being here on Monday than just about anything else in my life right now. It’s the first commitment I’ve had in years. Since I’ve been keeping it, I’ve been able to add others. Sometimes it’s just easier to show up for someone else than for yourself, you know?”
The UNITY Project has been a remarkable pilot project, and our goal for the future is continued growth. We know the need is there. With the right resources, we can reach more and more young people before they slip through the cracks.
Wellness Unit and UNITY Co-Leader, Fountain House