Portraits of Leadership

Fountain House Confronts COVID-19

Hyperakt’s new interview series hands the mic to nonprofit and cultural leaders around the nation as they guide their organizations through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Today we’re talking with Dr. Ashwin Vasan, President and CEO of Fountain House. Since 1948, Fountain House has created a culture that transforms lives: member-run clubhouses support the active and collaborative recovery of people living with serious mental illness.

From your vantage point, what stories are not being told about the impact of the Coronavirus?

From my perspective we need to be talking more about how the virus is affecting people who are already marginalized. We’ve made a start by raising issues of race and equity, and certainly the impact of the virus on people of color and lower income people is disturbing, if, sadly, unsurprising.

But these inequities also overlap with specific groups who are at extreme risk and need specific services: folks who are homeless, mentally ill, refugees, new immigrants, veterans and sexual minorities. These are people who, if we’re not intentional and thoughtful and strategic about our approaches to reach them, will bear the brunt of the epidemic when all is said and done. We need to be lifting up their stories and talking about solutions to address the very specific needs of these communities, in addition to the one-size-fits-all standard public health measures which are necessary.

How have you needed to change how your staff works or the way you deliver services in order to meet the new reality?

Fountain House’s model, which has inspired over 300 replications in over 30 countries and serves 100,000 people each year, is founded on the therapeutic value of community and congregation, in a safe and dignified physical space which we call a “clubhouse”. This is combined with basic health and social services, which together break social isolation and support durable recovery and opportunity for people living with mental illness.

Coronavirus, and the necessary physical distancing and isolation required, strikes at the very heart of our model. It also places at risk the thousands of members who depend on us for meals, medications, cash, benefits, and other life-sustaining services, in addition to the physical community that the clubhouse offers.

As someone working in public health, I recognized pretty early that we needed to close our physical doors and quickly pivot to protect members and staff — but still continue services, including finding a way for sustaining our community. I’m incredibly proud of our staff, who creatively and rapidly transitioned to ramp up community health work services, 1:1 home-based care and outreach — including meal, medication and cash delivery, accompaniment and navigation to health and other essential appointments- and distribution of phones so that at a minimum, all of our members have the ability to remain connected.

But what’s also exciting is that we’ve also taken this moment to build a Virtual Clubhouse community (thanks Hyperakt!), leveraging platforms like Facebook, Slack, and Zoom, to create an approximation of our therapeutic social services in a digital environment, which now has over 1,000 subscribers and will form a permanent part of our infrastructure going forward.

It’s hard to use the word opportunity at a time like this, but we do think that this virtual move is something we can build on to connect to other people in need. We are already doing this with other clubhouses in New York City (there are 12 others besides Fountain House and Fountain House Bronx), and working with criminal justice agencies to support people released from the justice system during the crisis. And we hope to expand this virtual platform across the country and the world to other clubhouse programs.

What gives you hope in this moment?

Despite the difficult circumstances, I’m encouraged to see how the world is finally seeing public health as a critical part of our society, and something that requires investment, maintenance, and leadership in order to stem and to prevent pandemics like this, but also to build more equitable and just societies where everyone has an equal opportunity to live a healthy life.

I’m hopeful that we will come to understand how our individual, collective, policy, and political choices impact who lives and who dies and how well they do both, and that we have an opportunity to bring a health lens to these choices routinely. I’m sad that it took something as dramatic as COVID-19 to bring public health to the fore, but hopeful that this is the last time anyone like me, a public health expert, will have to justify their “health-first” positions on important social and policy issues.

Explore Fountain House’s work at FountainHouse.Org and on Instagram, and read more interviews in the Portraits of Leadership series.

Hyperakt is a purpose-driven design and innovation studio that elevates human dignity and ignites curiosity. We believe in design’s power to build a future filled with courage, optimism, and honesty.

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