This is not my normal blog on mental illness policy, but since Kenn Dudek is retiring I wanted to say something about him. Kenn has been President of Fountain House for over 25 years and a relentless advocate on behalf of people with the most serious mental illnesses. He is a hero of mine.
Because of Kenn’s stellar efforts, Fountain House became the single program all the parents of seriously mentally ill wanted to get their kids into. It's even more so today. Fountain House is a ‘clubhouse’ style program. That means that people with serious mental illness run it: they answer the phones, work in the office, prepare the meals, clean the clubhouse, run events at the clubhouse and help other members of the clubhouse cope with their illness, navigate the system, develop a social network and get on with their lives. Fountain House also provides many members with housing, facilitates their return to the education system, and provides or finds supported employment opportunities for them. To put it another way: it is the most successful peer program in the country. And that is largely because of the work of Kenn and the team he assembled.
I first met Kenn in the 1990s when he would go around and give presentations about Fountain House to mental illness and community groups. At the time, I edited a mental illness newsletter and a top official at a public psychiatric hospital complimented it in a speech she gave, but added as an afterthought, “Of course, many of the people in our hospital can’t read” which led me to try to start a cable TV show on mental illness in order to reach them. I went everywhere looking for an organization that would help produce it. I got rejected everywhere until I went to Kenn.
When I told Kenn what I was trying to do, he instantly volunteered to help. He told me Fountain House had some video equipment and he would ask Fountain House club members if they would film, edit, traffic, and get the show on the air (with great help from Athena Lemakis). The members agreed. Kenn also agreed to be the first guest, and the talk show, Mental Illness Update, aired in New York City for many years with others eventually taking over the host duties from me. That was all due to Kenn. As a result of his efforts, more families and people with serious mental illness found another way to get the information they need.
While Fountain House necessarily operates outside the political environment that I work within, Kenn has been a valued advisor to me. He is one of the few people who work within the system whose judgment and advice I entirely trust. As most of us know, many mental health programs tend to cherry-pick the highest-functioning, easiest-to-treat populations as a matter of necessity. What they want is sometimes different from what families of the seriously mentally ill want. Under Kenn’s leadership, Fountain House has never engaged in that kind of cherry-picking. It has always accepted the most seriously ill and it stays by them through good times and bad. “Once a member, always a member.” He would sometimes give me private information about the system that he thought was useful to our work. He was always right. And sometimes he would privately criticize what we were trying to do, and often, he was right about that as well.
Through his involvement with Clubhouse International, Kenn has tried to expand the Clubhouse movement to other cities and countries and make sure they stay true to the model. Because of the novelty of what Fountain House offers, government funds are not always available so Kenn had to become a fund-raiser. It’s a difficult job that few people want, but Kenn does it because he believes in the mission. (You can donate here).
Kenn is modest, unassuming and soft-spoken. He has been a relentless and effective advocate for better care for the most seriously mentally ill. And while he has been given many awards, he deserves a lot more kudos than he gets. One of my regrets is that I have not done more to support him and his work.
I’m wishing Kenn Dudek, a hero of mine, all the best in his post-Fountain House retirement.
DJ Jaffe is Executive Director of Mental Illness Policy Org and the author of Insane Consequences: How the Mental Health System Fails the Mentally Ill. This blog originally appeared on Mental Illness Policy Org on July 29, 2019, and has been reproduced with permission.