How a community-based program for SMI pivoted during the pandemic


For more than 70 years, Fountain House has offered a lifeline for people living with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, and other serious mental illnesses through a community-based model of care. When he took the helm less than 2 years ago, CEO and President Ashwin Vasan, ScM, MD, PhD, wanted a greater focus on crisis-based solutions and a wider, public health approach.

Dr. Ashwin Vasan addresses Fountain House supporters in late 2019 in front of artwork, "Stand Up, 2019" by Miguel Colón, Fountain House member and gallery artist. Courtesy Fountain House

Dr. Ashwin Vasan addresses Fountain House supporters in late 2019 in front of artwork, "Stand Up, 2019" by Miguel Colón, Fountain House member and gallery artist.

That goal was put to the test in 2020, when SARS-CoV-2 shuttered all in-person activities. The nonprofit quickly rebounded, creating a digital platform, engaging with its members through online courses, face-to-face check-ins, and delivery services, and expanding partnerships to connect with individuals facing homelessness and involved in the criminal justice system. Those activities not only brought the community together – it expanded Fountain House’s footprint.

Among its membership of more than 2,000 people in New York City, about 70% connected to the digital platform. “We also enrolled more than 200 brand new members during the pandemic who had never set foot in the physical mental health “clubhouse.” They derived value as well,” Dr. Vasan said in an interview. Nationally, the program is replicated at more than 200 locations and serves about 60,000 people in almost 40 states. During the pandemic, Fountain House began formalizing affiliation opportunities with this network.

Now that the pandemic is showing signs of receding, Fountain House faces new challenges operating as a possible hybrid model. “More than three-quarters of our members say they want to continue to engage virtually as well as in person,” Dr. Vasan said. As of this writing, Fountain House is enjoying a soft reopening, slowly welcoming in-person activities. What this will look like in the coming weeks and months is a work in progress, he added. “We don’t know yet how people are going to prefer to engage.”

A role in the public policy conversation

Founded by a small group of former psychiatric patients in the late 1940s, Fountain House has since expanded from a single building in New York City to more than 300 replications in the United States and around the world. It originated the “clubhouse” model of mental health support: a community-based approach that helps members improve health, and break social and economic isolation by reclaiming social, educational, and work skills, and connecting with core services, including supportive housing and community-based primary and behavioral health care (Arts Psychother. 2012 Feb 39[1]:25-30).

Serious mental illness (SMI) is growing more pronounced as a crisis, not just in the people it affects, “but in all of the attendant and preventable social and economic crises that intersect with it, whether it’s increasing health care costs, homelessness, or criminalization,” Dr. Vasan said.

After 73 years, Fountain House is just beginning to gain relevance as a tool to help solve these intersecting public policy crises, he added.

“We’ve demonstrated through evaluation data that it reduces hospitalization rates, health care costs, reliance on emergency departments, homelessness, and recidivism to the criminal justice system,” he said. Health care costs for members are more than 20% lower than for others with mental illness, and recidivism rates among those with a criminal history are less than 5%.

Others familiar with Fountain House say the model delivers on its charge to improve quality of life for people with SMI.

It’s a great referral source for people who are under good mental health control, whether it’s therapy or a combination of therapy and medications, Robert T. London, MD, a practicing psychiatrist in New York who is not affiliated with Fountain House but has referred patients to the organization over the years, said in an interview.

Dr. Robert T. London of New York

Dr. Robert T. London

“They can work with staff, learn skills regarding potential work, housekeeping, [and] social skills,” he said. One of the biggest problems facing people with SMI is they’re very isolated, Dr. London continued. “When you’re in a facility like Fountain House, you’re not isolated. You’re with fellow members, a very helpful educated staff, and you’re going to do well.” If a member is having some issues and losing touch with reality and needs to find treatment, Fountain House will provide that support.

“If you don’t have a treating person, they’re going to find you one. They’re not against traditional medical/psychiatric care,” he said.

Among those with unstable or no housing, 99% find housing within a year of joining Fountain House. While it does provide people with SMI with support to find a roof over their heads, Fountain House doesn’t necessarily fit a model of “housing first,” Stephanie Le Melle, MD, MS, director of public psychiatry education at department of psychiatry at Columbia University/New York State Psychiatric Institute, said in an interview.

Dr. Stephanie Le Melle, director of public psychiatry education at Columbia University/New York State Psychiatric Institute, New York. Courtesy Dr. Le Melle

Dr. Stephanie Le Melle

“The housing first evidence-based model, as designed and implemented by Pathways to Housing program in New York in the early 90s, accepted people who were street homeless or in shelters, not involved in mental health treatment, and actively using substances into scatter-site apartments and wrapped services around them,” she said.

Dr. Le Melle, who is not affiliated with Fountain House, views it more as a supportive employment program that uses a recovery-oriented, community-based, jointly peer-run approach to engage members in vocational/educational programming. It also happens to have some supportive housing for its members, she added.

Dr. Vasan believes Fountain House could expand beyond a community model. The organization has been moving out from its history, evolving into a model that could be integrated as standard of care and standard of practice for community health, he said. Fountain House is part of Clubhouse International, an umbrella organization that received the American Psychiatric Association’s 2021 special presidential commendation award during its virtual annual meeting for the group’s use of “the evidence-based, cost-effective clubhouse model of psychosocial rehabilitation as a leading recovery resource for people living with mental illness around the world.”


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