‘We want to be accepted’: Clubhouses give community to those with mental illness

A woman poses for a portrait
Carmen Murray-Williams poses in the library of Fountain House in midtown Manhattan on Feb. 15.
Lydia McMullen-Laird | Call to Mind

Carmen Murray-Williams exudes youthful energy. On a recent winter morning she was dressed from head to toe in hot pink – pink glasses, a pink mask, pink leggings and a pink Nike swoosh on her blue shoes. She said she puts on bright colors when she’s having a tough day. 

“I always put on pretty colors to make myself happy.”

Murray-Williams, 64, has lived in New York City most of her life. She has a master’s degree in business, and she used to work as a legal secretary. But she’s been through a lot. 

There were times when she was dealing with homelessness and substance use. And eventually, at 42, she was diagnosed with a bipolar disorder. That made it even harder for her to maintain friendships and social connections. 

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“I didn't know that people was going to start treating me like I was different than everybody else and looking down on me and acting like I couldn't handle things,” Carmen said. 

A woman poses for a portrait
Carmen Murray-Williams poses in the lobby of Fountain House in midtown Manhattan on Feb. 15.
Lydia McMullen-Laird | Call to Mind

Murray-Williams is just one of millions of Americans dealing with loneliness and isolation. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans were facing an epidemic of loneliness, and that problem persists today. But this epidemic hits some populations harder than others, and for the more than 14 million people in the US — that’s about 1 in every 20 adults — like Murray-Williams, living with serious mental illness, loneliness is twice as high as in other populations. 

And the impacts of that loneliness are incredibly damaging. Experts say it can lead to more psychiatric hospitalizations, worse health outcomes and is associated with higher poverty and unemployment.

Murray-Williams was hospitalized multiple times, and then, about two years after her diagnosis, she heard about a place called Fountain House. Fountain House provides a place for people living with serious mental illness to socialize and build connections. It’s kind of like a community center, but for people who often feel like they don’t fit in in other places.

“They give you that hope here that you can do anything and be anything you want, no matter what society is telling you. Because they tell us, ‘You have a mental illness, you're stupid.’ You're not stupid if you have a mental illness. All of us can do something, you know, and we’re capable. We’re human beings. We wanna be accepted and join in everything that the world has to offer too,” Murray-Williams said. 

Fountain House pioneered the ‘clubhouse model’

Fountain House was founded 75 years ago, and it pioneered what is now known as the clubhouse model, which are community-based programs that provide social support for severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, major depressive disorder and borderline personality disorder. Today it has around 2,000 members.

It’s in a row of nondescript brick buildings in Midtown Manhattan that blends seamlessly into the surrounding neighborhood. But Murray-Williams said behind its big green double doors is something beautiful.

“When I walked in the building, I saw the chandeliers and the winding staircase and it's like coming into like a mansion and, and being, you know, you're special now, you’re part of the elite.”

On a Wednesday afternoon in February a couple hundred members were at Fountain House and, just like Murray-Williams, they said they come to Fountain House to feel less alone. Richard Griesmann, a retired butcher who recently lived in a homeless shelter, comes here almost every day.

“You gotta understand, I came from a situation where there was no caring, nobody helped nobody unless there was something in it for them,” Griesmann said. 

One person helps another with a resume
Delaina Peek helps a club member with his resume in the youth center at Fountain House in midtown Manhattan on Feb. 15.
Lydia McMullen-Laird | Call to Mind

There was a lot happening at Fountain House: Yoga class, chef’s club and even dress making.

At the youth center on the second floor, Fountain House staffer Delaina Peek helped a club member with his resume. Peek has worked here for four years and she’s seen what a difference this kind of social connection can make.

“We kind of create this, I like to think of it almost like a bubble of safety and community and familiarity and hopefully those skills that you can learn while building community and connecting and socializing here, that will apply outside as well,” Peek said. 

Clubhouses help people around the world

Fountain House has two locations in New York City and it has inspired similar clubhouses in 40 states and 30 countries. The non-profit organization Clubhouse International, established in 1994, now helps start new clubhouses and runs an accreditation process. 

Clubhouses are mainly a place to socialize, connect and get support with things like finding housing and employment. Being a member of a clubhouse is free and voluntary, and is open to anyone with a history of mental illness, as long as they do not pose a threat to the community. And members work alongside staff to run the clubhouse, including cooking, organizing activities and running support groups.

Francesca Pernice, a professor of psychology at Wayne State University, studies the clubhouse model and says that people with serious mental illnesses who attend clubhouses have twice the rate of employment and are less likely to end up in prison. They also have an easier time finishing school and finding housing than other people living with serious mental illnesses. And all that means this model also saves money. 

“It reduces the cost of psychiatric care over time. It also significantly reduces the cost of psychiatric care by keeping people out of the hospital, out of emergency rooms.” Pernice said.  

But according to Pernice, there just aren’t enough of these clubhouses out there: “You know, these models, these programs to me should be in every community, just like a library.”

There are over 9,000 public libraries in the U.S. alone, but there are only around 300 clubhouses worldwide. In addition to private grants and honors, clubhouses receive some government funding, but advocates say it’s not nearly enough. 

Clubhouse members and their supporters have been pushing for more research to show how effective the clubhouse model can be at combating loneliness and all the problems that come with it. 

This story comes from Call to Mind, American Public Media’s initiative to foster conversations about mental health.