Through decades of work as a psychiatric nurse, Marlene Mieske has grappled with questions of how to apply personal responsibility and self-sufficiency in her field. In her philanthropy she has become an enthusiastic supporter of Fountain House, an organization in New York City dedicated to men and women with mental illness. Fountain House builds a strong community network to help its members explore and achieve their potential in work, education, and life in accordance with their own initiative and aspirations. In this Q&A, The Philanthropy Roundtable asks Mieske what works in mental health care, how individuals can help themselves, and why culture and politics often muddy the water.
Philanthropy: How would you explain the Fountain House model?
Mieske: Fountain House is not a traditional treatment center. It was founded in 1944 by patients recently released from a state hospital. Under the original title, “We Are Not Alone,” they created a common space to find a job, begin an education, or get a date for Saturday night. Its core ingredient is community: members helping other members achieve their aspirations in life.
Philanthropy: What kinds of programs are available at Fountain House?
Mieske: A range of services are available to members, including employment training, education counseling, and nutrition and fitness opportunities.
Specifically in the work area, we’ve negotiated temporary jobs with area employers. Members can work for three or four months to build their resumes. In the case of an emergency when the member can’t work, a staff member will fill in at the place of employment.
Philanthropy: Do most of your members receive disability compensation from the government? Does that affect employment outcomes?
Mieske: Almost all of our members are on disability benefits. Often people are ready for a full-time job but are hesitant because they are terrified of losing their benefits. Our goal is to help people attain independence, but it is an ongoing struggle with the way current government benefit policies work.
Philanthropy: How is Fountain House funded?
Mieske: We rely heavily on philanthropy and also receive public funding. I’ve always felt we should make it more philanthropy and less government, because private philanthropy works in certain areas better than government. Our costs are controlled because the most basic element of the program is members helping other members. The staff is there mostly as facilitators. We even have a large art gallery, open to the public, which is run by the members, not by staff. Almost everything that works at Fountain House is a result of members pitching in and taking responsibility for operations.
Philanthropy: Why is it hard to attract philanthropy in mental illness?
Mieske: I think it is a big unknown, with a big stigma. I used to do a lot of work with AIDS patients and I often think that if we only had the same kind of advocacy AIDS had to reduce the stigma, we’d go very far. There are many well-to-do people with personal connections to mental illness, but few are willing to come out and speak about it. I’ve been surprised with the recent mass shootings, all related to mental illness, that we haven’t been talking about research to find cures or determine the best treatments. We push mental illness aside and instead talk about gun control.
Philanthropy: How do you judge your impact?
Mieske: We help the mentally ill live happier lives, and we help them become independent. That is really is the most charitable thing you can do for someone.