Even in the richest country in the world, mental health care is hard to come by for millions of Americans who, in the age of COVID, have never been more affected by mental health challenges.
Nowhere is the need more acute than in the Bronxwhich has the highest rate of psychiatric hospitalizations in the five municipalities, as well as the highest percentage of people in serious psychological distress.
As lifelong Bronx residents 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 shocking wasteland 91% of the population covered 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 little access to care. I dropped out of college after experiencing a downward spiral into major depressive disorder. There were moments when I attempted suicide because it felt like the world around me had collapsed. I lost hope.
I wouldn’t be alive today—much less a member of Congress—if it weren’t for the power of mental health care. I have long been a proponent of psychiatry and psychotherapy, but neither, alone or even together, is a cure. The isolation that life often imposes can be as corrosive as the mental illness itself.
Belonging to a community, supported by a strong support system, is the simple but often overlooked key to easing the difficulties of mental illness. Clubs can fill the human void left by isolation and can provide a loving supportive community where it may not exist.
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One of us (Arvindi) has been hospitalized more than 20 times, experienced one mental health crisis after another, and had to travel hours outside of the Bronx just to get basic mental health care. But I’ve also managed to turn my life around to become a leader, put myself through college, excel academically, manage a political campaign, get stable housing, and avoid hospitalizations—all through the power of caring community based.
Reimagining mental health care doesn’t have to be an insurmountable challenge. Community-based mental health care providers, such as Fountain House Bronx, have long demonstrated that there is a cost-effective and culturally competent approach to serving people with serious mental health challenges—a model of mental health care that has delivered life-changing results for decades. Fountain House members, both here in the Bronx and in Hell’s Kitchen, have greater access to stable housing, employment and education — as well as lower health care costs and recidivism rates — than most people struggling with illness severe mental.
Club model, created 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 less expensive alternative to the failed approach that the government has traditionally taken in response to mental illness. Instead of warehousing the mentally ill in prisons, jails and institutions, as the government has historically done, clubs give people the human dignity to remain rooted and connected to their communities.
Clubs are local organizations that allow people living with mental illness to remain in the community, rather than being confined against their will to institutions or worse, prisons – and should be expanded to meet the growing demand for services and support.
The club model provides a comprehensive support system that connects members to free resources that build long-term independence, such as job training and housing support, and empowers members to make decisions that will affect their care and recovery. At a time when mental illness has been sensationalized by the mediaand the only solution lawmakers seem to be able to find is forced treatmentFountain House Bronx has shown that we can engage people before they are in crisis while drastically improving outcomes and saving taxpayers millions in the process.
By creating a safe space for people with mental illness, Fountain House Bronx has succeeded in uplifting those whose lives have historically been destroyed by a system that is more concerned with criminalization than caring for the vulnerable.
Torres represents the South Bronx in the US House of Representatives. Sooknanan is a community mental health advocate and Fountain House Bronx Fellow who also serves on Fountain House’s board of directors.