Even in the world’s wealthiest country, mental health care is hard to come by for millions of Americans, who in the age of COVID have never been so beset by mental health issues.
Nowhere is the need more acute than in the Bronxwhich has the highest rate of psychiatric hospitalizations of the five boroughs, as well as the highest proportion of people in serious psychological distress.
As permanent residents of the Bronx who have experienced mental health crises firsthand, we have seen how our beloved community has been chronically denied the comprehensive mental health care it needs and deserves. Much of the Bronx remains a mental health care wasteland: A staggering 91% of the population insured by Medicaid in the Bronx lives in a designated mental health professional shortage area. In the Bronx and elsewhere in America, mental illness continues to be overcriminalized and undertreated.
I (Ritchie) know firsthand what it’s like to struggle with mental illness with few treatment options. I dropped out of college after experiencing a downward spiral into major depressive disorder. There were times when I tried to kill myself because I felt like the world around me had crumbled. I lost hope.
I wouldn’t be alive today – let alone a member of Congress – without the power of mental health care. I have long been a proponent of psychiatry and psychotherapy, but neither, alone or even together, is a panacea. The isolation that life often imposes can be just as corrosive as the mental illness itself.
Belonging to a community, backed by a strong support system, is the simple but often overlooked key to alleviating the difficulties of mental illness. Lodges can fill the human void left by isolation and can provide a loving supportive community where there may not be one.
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One of us (Arvind) has been hospitalized over 20 times, experienced one mental health crisis after another, and was forced to travel hours out of the Bronx just to access mental health care from base. But I also managed to change my life to become a leader, put myself through college, excel academically, manage a political campaign, be housed in a stable way, and avoid hospitalizations – all thanks to community care.
Reinventing mental health care doesn’t have to be an insurmountable challenge. Community mental health care providers, such as Bronx House Fountain, have long shown that there is a cost-effective, culturally competent approach to serving people with serious mental health issues – a model of mental health care that has delivered life-changing results for decades. Fountain House members here in the Bronx and Hell’s Kitchen have better access to stable housing, jobs and education – as well as lower health care costs and recidivism rates – than most people with serious mental illness.
The clubhouse model, launched by Fountain House since its founding in 1948 and present in more than 200 clubs across the country, offers not only a more humane but also a cheaper alternative to the failed approach that the government has traditionally adopted in response to the mental illness. Instead of warehousing the mentally ill in jails, jails and institutions, as the government has always done, the clubs offer people the human dignity to stay grounded and connected to their own communities.
Clubhouses are grassroots organizations that allow people living with mental illness to remain in the community, rather than being involuntarily exiled to institutions or worse, prisons – and needs to be expanded to meet the growing demand for services and support.
The clubhouse model offers a comprehensive support system that connects members to free resources that build long-term independence, such as job training and housing assistance, and empowers members to make the decisions that will impact on their care and recovery. At a time when mental illness was sensationalized by the mediaand the only solution lawmakers can seem to find is forced treatmentFountain House Bronx showed we could get people involved before they are in crisis while dramatically improving results and saving taxpayers millions.
By creating a safe space for people with mental illness, Fountain House Bronx has successfully uplifted those whose lives have been historically destroyed by a system more concerned with criminalizing than caring for the vulnerable.
Torres represents the South Bronx in the United States House of Representatives. Sooknanan is a community mental health advocate and member of Fountain House Bronx who also sits on the Fountain House Board of Directors.