News and analysis
July 18, 2014

Charities That Support People With Mental Illness Win Hilton Prize

Clark Jones for Conrad N. Hilton Foundation

Fountain House and its sister organization, Clubhouse International, have won the $1.5-million Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize, which recognizes groups that work to alleviate human suffering.

The biggest danger for people with severe mental illnesses is not navigating the health-care system or finding a good therapist, says Kenneth Dudek, president of Fountain House, a New York charity that helps such people live independently—it’s isolation.

"What’s happening to people now is they end up not spending time in hospitals anymore," he says. "Instead, what happens is they end up living alone. That in turn makes the illness worse, and people don’t get the help they need."

For its efforts to provide a sense of community to its members, Fountain House and its sister organization, Clubhouse International, have won the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize, a $1.5-million award that recognizes an organization that works to alleviate human suffering.

This is the first time the prize has been awarded to a mental-health organization. Hawley Hilton McAuliffe, a member of the prize’s jury and granddaughter of Conrad Hilton, says the organizations were chosen because mental health has not received much attention despite the prevalence of the problem.

"It’s a humanitarian crisis at this point, especially here in the United States," she says. "It’s one area that has not been addressed by many organizations."

Widespread Problem

Fountain House’s success at giving mentally ill people opportunities to find fellowship was on the Hilton jury’s mind when it chose to award it the prize. So was the recent spate of mass shootings, in particular the spree committed by 22-year-old Elliot Rodger, who killed six people and injured 13 others near the campus of University of California at Santa Barbara this May.

"Here was this isolated individual who had no sense of community," Ms. McAuliffe says. "Wouldn’t Fountain House have been a good resource for him?"

The numbers indicate many people are in need of similar resources. In the United States alone, 13.6 million people live with a serious mental illness like major depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. And the World Health Organization estimates 450 million people worldwide suffer from such illnesses. Three-quarters of chronic mental illnesses begin by the age of 24, but people sometimes wait decades to seek treatment. Most alarming, nearly half of all homeless adults in America has a severe mental illness.

Started as Self-Help Group

Six patients and two volunteers founded Fountain House in 1944 at Rockland State Hospital, in Orangeburg, N.Y., after forming a self-help group in a club room to prepare themselves for life after being discharged from the hospital. After their release, they met on the steps of the New York Public Library to give each other support, calling themselves the "We Are Not Alone Society." In 1948, the group became Fountain House.

The charity has since expanded into a global presence, with the creation 20 years ago of a spin-off group, Clubhouse International. The organizations have established local clubhouses all over the world to serve mentally ill people. They work alongside professional staff to create and run programs that help people like themselves go to college and find jobs and permanent housing. The two groups combined serve more than 100,000 people at 340 clubhouses in 32 countries

Holding members responsible for helping run each clubhouse is meant to be therapeutic, Mr. Dudek says. The practice lies at the heart of everything the organizations do. "We purposefully understaff our program so we rely upon the work of the membership, and that’s part of the member’s recovery process."

On an annual budget of $17-million, Fountain House serves 1,300 New Yorkers a year who are referred there by doctors, hospitals, and health centers. Clubhouse International coordinates the development of new clubhouses, training leaders and volunteers and running on a budget of $1.3-million.

Most Fountain House members are low-income and range in age, Mr. Dudek says, from "18 to forever." Its oldest member was 102.

The organization’s goal is to ensure every member can become self-sufficient. To that end, Fountain House helps members finish their education, whether it’s a GED or completing graduate school. It also helps members find housing that offers them counseling and other services and gives them help in managing their medications and budgeting.

Its drive to make members self-sufficient includes a strong emphasis on employment. Through Fountain House’s transitional employment program, local employers provide members with paid, part-time positions for up to nine months. The employers include major companies like Dow Jones, Estee Lauder, HBO, and Pfizer.

The charity also runs a social-enterprise program and has helped members start their own businesses, including a food-delivery service and a property-management firm.

In Demand

Demand for Fountain House’s services exceed availability. It notes that its services are also cost-effective: It costs $28,000 to provide a full year of housing and other services. That’s the average cost for a two-week stay in a New York City hospital.

Nevertheless, obtaining consistent funding remains a constant struggle for the organization, Mr. Dudek says.

Fountain House gets most of its budget from state and federal government sources, and a big chunk of the rest comes from individuals. Some foundations also support the organization, Mr. Dudek says, most significantly the van Ameringen Foundation, one of the few grant makers in the United States that focuses on mental health.

The Hilton prize money will be evenly split between Fountain House and Clubhouse International. The goal, Mr. Dudek says, is to produce research that provides further evidence that its programs are effective.

But, he stresses, the power of the programs lies in members taking control of their lives.

"When you have these illnesses, the biggest problem you have next to the isolation is that you lose your self-esteem," he says. "We believe strongly in empowerment."

Send an e-mail to Caroline Bermudez.