President Kenn Dudek’s Speech at the Hilton Prize Ceremony

Posted on November 10, 2014 by Kenneth J. Dudek

The following speech was given by President Kenn Dudek at the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize Ceremony on October 27th.

Kenn Dudek Kenn DudekGood evening.  Along with everybody from Fountain House and Clubhouse International I am very happy to be here tonight.

I’d like to thank the Hilton Foundation and its distinguished jurors for awarding Fountain House and Clubhouse International the 2014 Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize. We accept this prize tonight on behalf of all the courageous and hardworking people who have dedicated their lives to our work.

This is the first time an organization focused on mental illness has been selected for this honor. The magnitude of this acknowledgement cannot be overstated. 

There are 450 million people living with mental illness around the world.  Without question, many of us in this room tonight have been touched by this issue.  Mental Illness affects more people than cancer, heart disease or HIV/AIDS. 

And yet because of the profound bias toward this illness few people realize or believe its severity. Ignoring it leads to greater medical complications, human rights violations and soaring economic costs.

Isolation, homelessness, incarceration, unemployment and suicide are common experiences for our people.  In the United States, 40% of the homeless population is living with mental illness.  Of the incarcerated, 24% have a mental disorder.  Among the mentally ill, 85% are unemployed.

People with mental illness die twenty five years earlier than the general population. Dr. Shekhar Saxena from the World Health Organization is here tonight. Working with him and others we want to spread awareness of this devastating fact and stop it.

In awarding this prize to a mental health organization, the Hilton Foundation is acknowledging mental illness as one of the great humanitarian crises of our time. One that goes beyond illness, and encompasses human rights violations and the marginalization and discrimination of an entire group of people.

Fountain House and Clubhouse International are certainly not the only organizations addressing the crisis of mental illness – however - our approach to the problem is unlike any other in the world.  

At Fountain House we serve people living with the most severe forms of mental illness…but we neither administer medicine nor practice psychotherapy. Instead we start with a fundamental human trait - The need to be needed—and therefore community becomes our therapy. 

We know medication and therapy are important parts of the equation. For that reason we established the Sidney Baer Center over twenty years ago. It is a comprehensive medical and behavioral health clinic. But treating the illness clinically is only part of the solution. The second part is providing hope and purpose. Or as we say: a place to come, meaningful work, meaningful relationships and a place to return to in the world.

Fountain House was founded by a group of six former psychiatric patients and two volunteers on the steps of the New York public library in the 1940’s. 

They called themselves WANA for “We are not Alone”, a name that spoke to the central problem for people living with serious mental illness at that time and today – social isolation. With the help of some friends this group found a building on West 47 Street in New York City. It had a fountain in the back garden. So WANA became Fountain House.

The WANA idea was not unique in the world.  I’m sure many of you are familiar with the South African concept of Ubuntu.  As I loosely translate it “A person is a person through other people.” I understand it to mean that our humanity is enhanced by others…that our well-being depends on that of those around us. 

For 66 years, Fountain House and Clubhouse International members have been caring for themselves, for each other and for their community. Working side by side with professional staff, members plan and administer every function of our organization, truly relying on one another to reach common objectives.

The inherent humanity, social inclusivity, personal empowerment, and innovation of our approach have made Fountain House the most widely replicated model for people living with mental illness in the world. What started on the steps of the New York Public Library has grown to over 300 locations in this and 34 other countries.

To paraphrase Mark Lanier, Board Chair of Clubhouse International, tomorrow morning a heroic group of people will cross the thresholds of clubhouses all over the world and begin their journey into recovery.

When Alan Doyle, the Director of Fountain House Training and Education, met with government officials in India they asked him what resources Fountain House could offer to implement its model there.  Alan responded, “What we bring to you is already here --The people living with mental illness-- they are your resource and we will help you to foster this resource.

Fountain House is truly a public-private partnership model. Our sustainability depends on what any community depends on - the inclusion and active participation of all of its members. Our partnership begins with people living with mental illness interacting with each other and with professional staff to keep our community functioning. 

It involves their families – brothers, sisters, children, and parents - who support what we do because we represent a reason for their loved ones to get out of bed and come to a place that accepts and provides them with a sense of purpose.

It also includes the employers we work with, the schools we attend, our religious places of worship and the man in the corner bodega.

Our partners are also individual, corporate and foundation supporters … like the Hilton Foundation…that provide the vital financial resources we need to sustain and innovate our programming.  

All of these partners work together to demonstrate that people with mental illness everywhere can achieve their potential and that their potential is limitless.

People once believed that if you had schizophrenia or bi-polar illness you could not go to school. Our members enroll in and graduate from all kinds of schools ranging from secondary school to PhD’s.  77% of our members complete their educations.

And employers all over the world have helped our members succeed. We have created jobs for them jobs at major companies like Dow Jones, Publicis, Broadridge and IKEA, to name a few.

And we can’t forget the role that our partners in government play in sustaining our community.  We are often approached by government officials from around the world as they confront issues of deinstitutionalization that threaten social and economic stability.  Elected officials seek us out because they recognize the efficacy of our model… a model started from the ground-up by and for people living with mental illness… as the most cost-effective and culturally sensitive way to address this crisis.  

Today, there are programs thriving in a small village in Kampala, Uganda and in a neighborhood in Gualeguaychu, Argentina.  All started by and for people living with mental illness in partnership with individuals vested in seeing them succeed. Because, after all, working communities of this type transcend politics, socio-economic status, religion and language. 

When learning that Fountain House and Clubhouse International won the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize, Loree Sutton, Commissioner of Veteran’s Affairs for the City of New York, who is joining us this evening said… “You received this award not for what you have accomplished, but for the promise of what you have to offer. Now, the hard work really begins.”  I couldn’t agree more.  We are at a tipping point.

While mental disorders account for 13% of the global burden of disease, most countries’ mental health budgets are less than 2% of total health care expenditures. The financial cost of mental illness this year alone will reach $1.7 trillion. Half of the countries in the world have one psychiatrist per 100,000 people and a third of all countries have absolutely no mental health programs. We all need to do more - both governments and individuals.  

So, as we pause to celebrate this momentous occasion, I would like to propose to all of you here this evening that we revive the WANA society and pledge to work together to build communities that create hope for people living with mental illness around the world.

Thank you.

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