Betty, the author, flashes her winning smile.The following was originally presented as a speech during a site visit by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.
Often pivotal moments in life are fleeting - there is often only unconscious awareness of them. The people in life who guide and focus us may be unrecognizable until much later. Today is a special occasion, one in which I get to thank those, recognize those who have been integral in my blossoming as a human being, a woman, a struggling person with a disability.
The organization that I am part of - that I give to of my mind, my work, my guidance - is being considered for the Hilton Humanitarian Prize, the Nobel Peace Prize of humanitarianism. This award has traditionally been given to doctors, practitioners, teachers - all from organizations that maintain a hierarchical structure from which they help those they deem needy or where people needing help come for a short time of need. Fountain House operates differently.
Mental illness that is severe and persistent disables people on multiple levels - making it an all encompassing illness and one in which traditional timed recovery plans are not useful - in fact they can be detrimental.
Mental illness disables people by presenting in full acute states, say during a delusional or major depressive episode. It devalues people as contributing members of society through stigma and dismantles social structures such as family, jobs, school because reasonable accommodations and education are not presented to families and employers/employees.
For instance, it is not common knowledge that someone coming out of a manic episode will need anywhere from 4-9 months of recovery time before resuming the same activities as before the break. Jobs do not accommodate based on what a person’s current functional needs and limits are, rather people are let go when they cannot perform at the highest level of functioning consistently.
My job, in supporting our organization for this prestigious award, is not just to talk about stigma, but to focus on my story and how Fountain House has made the difference in my life. This is a list I compiled to make sure I don’t miss any points:
1. Four years ago I was working full time while living in hostels and on the subway.
2. I was planning to end my life.
3. I made a promise to do anything and everything I could to help myself in return for guidance.
4. A friend gave me a tour of Fountain House.
5. After joining I had immediate usefulness every day, no matter how little or how much I could do.
6. I achieved stability: I attended doctor visits and support groups. I joined activities, showed and sold artwork through Fountain Gallery, and worked on High Point Farm.
7. I began to blossom: I became a group facilitator, went back to school, graduated with my Associates Degree with honors, mentored others with mental illness, advocated on behalf of Fountain House, and increased my artistic output.
8. I developed new dreams: to become an art therapist, to start a Fountain House-model program in Buffalo, to get married and have kids
9. I still have issues and recently have had a lot of setbacks: family deaths, surgery, insurance issues, college applications, stress, mood problems
10. But Fountain House is always there for me, no matter what. I always have a second home, help, and people who know what it is like and who love me for who I am.
I want to convey that clubhouses save lives, both literally and figuratively. They prevent suicide while also creating a space for personal, professional, academic, and familial growth.
Suicide is not something that happens in the laboratory of someone’s mind. What I hear too often from family and friends of people who are dealing with depression or suicidal ideation is “Just remember people care about you.” It’s as if they think that a person’s issues are tied to that alone - and that arguing rationally with a mind that has taken on irrationality is the right way to go about helping someone.
Suicide is not a response to the attitudes of the people who care about you; it is a reaction to harshness of the greater world and the collective human consciousness. That’s why people who are bullied, ostracized, minimized, and abused commit suicide. All the above render us powerless over our own situations, our outlook on the world and ourselves, causing ruminations which lead to an intense need for escape.
These actions, of other people towards us, change our brain chemistry. They change the way we perceive and interact with the world. Depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia also change our brain chemistry, and the combination of neglect or abuse coupled with mental illness can be deadly for this reason. Add the stigma of mental illness (which functions much like societal shunning), and you have a triple threat capable of dismantling even the most stable minds.
What Fountain House does is build a cocoon of safety, removing the stigma and the incidence of neglect/abuse. People who have our best interests and the best interests of the world run Fountain House, but we, as members, decide how it is run in conjunction with staff. It removes the bureaucratic apathy so easily found in our governmental institutions and clinics.
The space itself becomes good, pleasing, malleable to our functional level. The abuse, ignorance, shame, anger, distrust, humiliation that has been hurled at us from those entrusted to keep us safe – our peers and our world - has no place to breath inside these walls; it has no place somewhere you can plant a flower or file a piece of paper or cook lunch or teach a class or run a program or just sit and wait for energy.
At Fountain House, we can be ourselves, free of people saying “If you just do something you’ll feel better!” and instead saying “Hey, can you give me a hand with this?”
What happens then, when you realize that nothing you can do can destabilize this place - where no one will be disappointed with you for being you - is astonishing. The blossoming and growth of a person, once nearly drown by the world, takes place. Dreams come true. I’ve seen people walk through those doors who’ve never had a job before - they were told they never would by parents and teachers - get an employment opportunity in which they work a low stress job for 6 months. Their confidence increases, and they apply for another and eventually get hired permanently. After a ten-year hiatus from school, I went back only after I saw others like myself do so. We inspire each other, teach each other the ropes.
In this way Fountain House saves lives: by providing a place we can grow from the small lives we are allowed to live when deemed sick or unworthy or damaged, to the large lives we get to claim as our own - and live how we want.
Education Unit, Fountain House