Torres creates caucus focused on mental illness


Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. And there is power in telling your story.

That is part of what U.S. Rep. Ritchie Torres says motivated him to creating a caucus on Capitol Hill focused on improving care for those with severe mental illness.

The Congressional Clubhouse Caucus aims to serve as a venue for members to advocate for improved mental health care via clubhouses, described by Clubhouse International as community-based services supporting and empowering people living with mental illness.

“Clubhouses are essentially community centers for those with serious mental illness, and the genius of the clubhouse model lies in its simplicity,” Torres said. “It recognizes the simple truth that those with serious mental illness have the same needs as everyone else: A need for belonging. A need for community where none might exist. A need for supportive services like workforce development.”

The clubhouse model was pioneered by Fountain House in 1948. Today, the mental health nonprofit is part of a coalition of more than 200 accredited clubhouse programs in nearly 40 states and across more than 30 countries.

Several clubhouses are located throughout New York City, including in the Bronx.

“We commend Rep. Torres for founding the Clubhouse Caucus and advancing mental illness recovery in a way that emphasizes the strength, dignity and self-efficacy of people living with serious mental health conditions,” Fountain House chief executive Ken Zimmerman said, in a release. “The congressman has been a leading mental health advocate in government, and we’re pleased to continue to work with him to expand the reach and impact of clubhouses across the country.”

Dr. Donna Demetri Friedman, the executive director of Mosaic Mental Health in North Riverdale, says what Torres is doing for mental health services is a big step in the right direction.

“I think it is very important to have public officials truly understand the needs of people with chronic mental health issues,” Friedman said. “And the clubhouse model is a really great way to continue to support people with serious mental health issues.”

One of the biggest challenges Friedman has seen is the alienation and isolation that comes with mental illness. The clubhouse model has proven to create spaces to help with that loneliness.

Torres’ caucus will focus on educating congressional members and the public about the clubhouse model, holding discussions to support policy changes and improvements in mental health care, and addressing challenges faced by those with severe mental illness, such as social reintegration and racial disparities in mental health care access.

“I have struggled with depression my whole life,” Torres said. “You know, every morning I take an antidepressant and I feel no shame admitting it because it enables me to be the best version of myself. I would not be in Congress today — I would not be alive today — were it not for mental health care.”

Torres has set out to be a champion of mental health care and mental health awareness in Congress. He has encouraged his colleagues to join the caucus, no matter their party.

“There is power in telling your story, and mental illness is nothing to which be ashamed,” he said. “As a humble servant I feel a profound sense of obligation to share my own story about struggling with depression in hopes of breaking silence and shame and stigma that often surrounds the subject of mental health.”

Mental health has taken on a new urgency, Torres said, adding that the isolation of Covid-19 and social media have been “catastrophes for the collective mental health of America.”

“I think one of the reasons there is so much conversation and support around mental health needs is because maybe, for the first time in a hundred years, everybody was affected by the pandemic, and therefore felt the isolation and the challenges of anxiety, depression and fear, quite frankly,” Friedman said.

“And so, I think that the universal experience of the pandemic really brought to the surface the needs of everyone — but particularly for folks who struggle with more significant ongoing mental health problems.”

The good news, she says, is that those people came out with knowledge on dealing with those mental health problems. Torres’ caucus aligns nicely with the services they provide, she added, while hoping the congressman broadens it beyond clubhouses and focuses on peer-involved services.

“I think part of what is really important is for people to know is people with a lived mental health experience are not dangerous,” Freidman said. “That they are more likely to be victims of crimes and traumatic events than the perpetrators. And I think we oftentimes will hear the worst case scenarios, and attribute that to the larger population.

“And it’s just not the reality. They just struggle with certain things that others may not struggle with — but many do.”


U.S. Rep. Ritchie Torres Congressional Clubhouse Caucus Mental health care Clubhouse model Mental illness awareness Stigma reduction Social integration Covid-19 impact Mental health challenges Peer-involved services