A Caring Community

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Fountain House’s “College Re-Entry” program helps students with mental illness realize their future.

It was the summer of 2005 when I realized my life as I knew it had changed forever. I was at my parents’ home in Sagaponack, New York, the site of so many happy times, when I paused in front of my brother Danny’s bedroom, now empty. “Where did my brother go?” I recalled thinking. I didn’t mean literally. I knew that he was at McLean Hospital in Boston getting treatment for bipolar disorder. What I yearned to understand was how Danny’s brain could have betrayed him this way?

Danny was born with a talent for acting and comedy that seemed like a divine gift. It was recognized early, and he had performed on stage and on-screen. When we were younger, I would leave congratulatory notes on his bed for him to find when he came home. And when he got his first movie role, I screamed and jumped around the room with him, beyond excited for his future. Danny was my big brother, and like so many younger siblings, I worshipped him.

Danny had gone missing prior to this hospitalization. We knew he was living on the streets of New York City, but we hadn’t been able to find him. We were out looking every day, and the one time we saw him, he ran away from us. Rumors circulated during that time that Danny was estranged from us, and had been for years. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Our entire family, Danny included, was extremely close. Danny was ill. We knew that every second of every day, there was a chance Danny could get hurt, or even killed. The reality was that, without treatment, Danny’s illness stole his ability to understand the consequences of his words and actions, and, in the end, the only person my sweet brother was in danger of hurting was himself.

I had spent nights on an Internet chatroom for families of those with bipolar disorder, and developed a friendship with a woman I knew only by her screen name.  Her son was also ill, and I valued our talks. She worked on a farm in Boise, Idaho, yet I felt so connected to her. The problem was that when I signed off, the loneliness I had kept at bay enveloped me once again as I sat there in the dark room. As my family and I struggled to understand what Danny had gone through, our dear family friend Lorna Graev came over to my home and reached out her hand to me. “Katie,” she said, her voice strong and certain, “take my hand and let me help you step into the light.” With that, she introduced me to Fountain House.

All the negative perceptions of mental illness became obsolete the minute I walked through the front doors at Fountain House. Here, in the middle of New York City, stood a beautiful brick building and, within its walls, a community that cared about both its members and values.

Fountain House has been a leader in the field of mental health since its inception in 1948. It is the only mental health organization to win the Hilton Humanitarian Award: the world’s largest humanitarian award given to organizations that have made extraordinary contributions to alleviating human suffering.   

Fountain House helps more than 1,500 New Yorkers with serious mental illness learn new skills for work, school, and life, and, most importantly, form a community. By joining the board of Fountain House, I knew I would be making a difference.

Since joining, I have had the opportunity to work on some projects and I am really excited about Fountain House’s newest pioneering effort, the College Re-Entry program. College Re-Entry provides a non-clinical resource for college students, ages 18–30, who have had their educations interrupted by mental illness.

The goal of the program is to not only help students return to college, but to offer various tools and techniques students need to strengthen skills, reduce stress, and increase independence. College Re-Entry has designed an innovative fee-based, semester-long curriculum for young adults that combines academic preparedness classes with wellness workshops and one-on-one academic coaching.

I am both proud and astounded that this initiative is the first of its kind. Certainly, there is no lack of need for such a program: “More than 25 percent of college students have been treated by a mental health professional within the past year,” according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. 

My hope is that, in time, the College Re-Entry program—whose core program has helped 85 percent of its students successfully return to school—will become widely known among university students and staff, so that no one ever has to feel they don’t have options. To help in this effort, the Dalton School is partnering with College Re-Entry on April 19 in a health and wellness symposium designed to help young adults and their families prepare for mental health challenges students might face in college. Every parent of junior and senior students in the Independent Schools Admissions Association of Greater New York is invited to attend to learn more about this important and growing issue. 

Both Fountain House and its College Re-Entry program give people hope. I think I can sum this up by quoting a letter I received from an old friend of Danny’s, who is also living with mental illness. She only learned about Fountain House recently, and after her tour she wrote me the following:

“I think the hardest part of managing bipolar disorder is trying to be healthy and contributing to society and doing something meaningful while keeping a secret. Fountain House seems like it would be a great place to not have to hide and yet be treated not like a person with a serious mental illness. I never imagined such a place would exist.”

Welcome to the light…

Danny Zorn lost his battle to mental illness in October 2012. His legacy of helping people lives on through the Danny Zorn Education Scholarship. For more information about the College Re-Entry Program, visit collegereentry.org.