More Than A Pill: Fountain House and Photographs Helped Him Recover


Dr. Leonard Aschenbrand

The right medication proved to be the foundation that my son needed to begin his road to recovery. But as I have written before, it took much more than a pill to help him get his life back on track. A good friend of mine, Sam Ormes, (click his name to read a blog about Sam) recently introduced me to someone who illustrates that point of view.

Dr. Leonard Aschenbrand’s  first serious bout with depression came while he was completing his fourth year of medical school. He became so sick that he was hospitalized for a week. After he was discharged, he returned to his studies,  passed all of his classes and began an internship at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City. Again, there were difficult days when he felt deeply depressed, but he managed to plow through them.

Although he had studied internal medicine, he enjoyed pediatrics and joined a pediatric practice in Brooklyn after he finished his residency. For the next twenty years, he had a successful career. At his high-point, Dr. Aschenbrand was the associate director of pediatrics at a New York hospital, responsible for setting up the pediatric emergency room and pediatric clinic. He was happily married to his college sweetheart, Judy, and together they had four children. Life was good.

But his depression lurked in the background. In 1999, his world came crashing in.

Facing tremendous pressure at work, Dr. Aschenbrand fell into a depressive episode that was so severe it caused him to become suicidal. He was hospitalized and diagnosed with acute depression and bipolar disorder. His doctors tried electric shock therapy and an assortment of different medications but nothing seemed to work. After four years, Dr. Aschenbrand’s psychiatrist finally found a cocktail of drugs that helped him. Dr. Aschenbrand became stable, but he felt uninspired and defeated. He spent eight months lying on a living room couch.

Dr. Aschenbrand’s doctor realized that his patient needed something more. He telephoned Kenn Dudek, the president of Fountain House  in Manhattan and arranged for Dr. Aschenbrand to visit its clubhouse.

“My recovery began the day I walked through Fountain House’s front door,” Dr. Aschenbrand told me during a telephone interview. “My self-esteem started to come back. There is no such thing as a failure at Fountain House. If you make it there in the morning, that is an accomplishment. No one at Fountain House is admonished for what they can’t do. They are praised for what they can do, and for someone who is ill and feels defeated and beaten down, that praise is renewing.”

Fountain House members would later tell Dr. Aschenbrand that he had been pretty “ spacey” when he first  became a member. That revelation surprised him because no one had treated him as if he were different or a problem.

I wasn’t surprised when  I heard that Dr. Aschenbrand had been accepted at Fountain House without being ostracized. I’ve visited it twice in Manhattan and toured a dozen of Fountain House’s clubhouse affiliates in other cities. I’ve always been impressed by the program and its leadership. Fountain House traces its roots back to 1944 when ten people met at a YMCA as part of a self-help group called We Are Not Alone. At the time, they had a revolutionary idea. They believed that people with mental illnesses could help each other get better. Today, Fountain House assists more than 1,300 individuals in Manhattan and another 55,000 internationally through its network of affiliates.

One of my favorite programs at Fountain House is its job sharing initiative. It helps members build their resumes by putting them to work at real jobs in the community that pay real salaries. Let’s say you are recovering from a mental disorder, but not well enough to hold a traditional forty-hour job. Fountain House will send you to a transitional job where you might work for three hours per day before being relieved by another Fountain House member who will complete the remainder of the shift.  Members who can’t work outside the clubhouse are assigned tasks inside it.  They may sweep floors, make sandwiches, clear tables. Everyone has a responsibility because jobs give individuals a purpose in life and a feeling of accomplishment. Each member also has a voice in what happens in the clubhouse.

Shortly after joining Fountain House, Dr. Aschenbrand met Esther Montanez who asked him what he liked to do. He mentioned that he had been taking photographs as a hobby since 1968 when he was twenty years old and his father gave him a Nikkormat EL camera. Montanez told him about Fountain Gallery, a showplace operated by Fountain House that features original art work by its members. She encouraged him to submit some of his photographs for possible exhibit.

Encouraged by Montanez, Dr. Aschenbrand says, “My images became better and better. I’ll never forget the feeling that I had when someone bought one of my photographs to display in their home.”

In the past eight years, Dr. Aschenbrand has garnered praise from his peers, been featured in a one-man show at the Jadite Gallery in Manhattan, and won favorable reviews from local critics. He has sold many of his photographs.

“It took my psychiatrist four years to get me on the correct medication,” Dr. Aschenbrand says, “but even though the medication stabilized me, it took more than medication to help me fully recover. It took Fountain House.”

Dr. Aschenbrand is now hoping to return to work in a pediatric practice.

It hasn’t  been an easy road for him to get where he is today. He is grateful to his wife, his family and his psychiatrist. But he also credits Fountain House for offering him acceptance, helping him regain his confidence and self esteem, and for giving him hope.

“I was bitter, very bitter when I got sick and lost my job and career,” he says. “Now I realize that the illness is one of those things that happens to some people in a lifetime and I have gotten over the bitterness. I used to be ashamed, but now if someone asks me if I have a mental illness, I say, ‘I have bipolar disorder and depression, but I am stable and I don’t care if you know it.’”

Here is a sample of Dr. Aschenbrand’s work, courtesy of him.  




About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.


  1. Thank you for sharing a story that clearly shows that we need more than the medical model to heal any part of the body. As a family member whose son and brother are both diagnosed with schizo affective disorder I have long yearned for a marriage of the medical and recovery model. My life work has become devoted to this dream. 

    Family members who oppose the recovery model because of its ties to anti-psychiatry miss the opportunity to connect to the power of the human model of healing. Consumers who oppose the medical model prevent many from accessing the necessary treatment that can lead to recovery. Granted the medical treatment for brain illness has been grossly underfunded and is often inhumane and there are very few Clubhouses or Wellness Centers in our communities. But when both are available I have seen the magic. 

    My community in Contra Costa County in California is fortunate to have both the Putnam Clubhouse and three Wellness Centers operated by Mental Health Consumer Concerns. Both are peer run organizations. When you hear the stories of those who have access to these supportive, rehabilitative services you see the power of medicine and hope combined. 

    Unfortunately neither of my family members has been able to balance the two models of healing. My son is at Napa State Hospital where I assure you there is access to pills without hope. He craves a social, human life but his anosognosia prevents him from staying safe in the community long enough to experience recovery. My brother lives independently in the community but isolates. He faithfully takes his pills but can’t trust the risk of human rejection. 

    For both my brother and son I hold onto a vision of hope. As this story demonstrates, that hope can not always come from a pill and the family alone.  Plus, too many of our consumers have lost the love and support of their family. So for all to heal, It must come from a community that wraps you in whatever it takes to feel whole. That is the challenge of our country. 

  2. Pete, I can’t applaud you enough for your ‘investigative reporting’!
    Some are just naturals at it!
         Boy, do we need more true life accounts of professionals, higly esteemed,
    well educated, and successful career people, coming forward with their personal brushes and diagnoses with mental illness!
        These are the folks that the stigmatizing public needs to learn about. The fact that people with mental illnesses can and do lead exemplary lives, often accomplishing lofty goals – depressive Lincoln, bipolar alcoholic Winston Churchill, bipolar Ted Turner of Turner network,  – is a bigger reality than the very few criminally insane.
          To enable the mentally ill to do what they can, comfortably, at their own speed, without outside pressure, is life-breathing for them. Many ‘Houses’ of this type, engage in cajoling, threatening, shaming, and belittling to gain cooperation from a mentally ill person on the threshold of ‘coming around’. This is common practice in many community-based mental health out patient programs. Some are publicly funded, others private. Shouting matches are not uncommon to force people out of bed, or threats to reduce money allowance that a payee oversees,if for instance the out patient makes a judgement error w/ bill paying or expenditures. The difference is punitive, authoritarian-style vs. positive affirmation which respects the out-patients’ individuality. Its the difference between being told you should, you must, you have to, and you can, you are, and you will.
           I don’t think I could chronicle each and every instance of pure browbeating I have witnessed by caregivers toward mentally ill folks trying to recover. There was the woman in her 30’s forced out of a hospital and into an apartment that she, herself, told anyone who might listen, that she was not ready for. She was found hanging, there, a few days after. And more recently, mentally ill people in  community mental health enclaves who want to work, but “so and so my therapist told me I can’t work.” I would certainly go into far more detailing of these gross mistreatments of the mentally ill, and the misuse of taxpayer’s dollars for the same, if I knew that it would help bring REAL CHANGE to the broken system
         Considering that years before ‘pills’ were available, some mentally ill were able to recover to meaningful lives, it is no socio-medical surprise that the tried and true humane methods employed by Fountain House, really work! Of course, give
    a man or woman, girl or boy, an interest or vocation and watch them flourish!
    Who among us (see Maslow), can live without some chosen passion?!
          There is a difference between virtual peer to peer sharing, ant the type of peer counseling widely used today, which involves the direct consult and involvement of non-peers. The former is more effective. Here’s the crunch – group actively mentally ill folks together, and the state of mental illness persists for all. Mix the active mentally ill, with the recovering, under the oversee of the quite stable and
    long time recovered ( or in remission), and recovery rates will improve more rapidly than if they were under the care of professionals and poorly trained workers.Why?  Because, just as your gramma knew to give you chicken soup,
    the mentally ill can know what helps them if given the opportunity to explore that w/ others experiencing the same, or similar. Doctors who have studied for years and families/friends who have never had a mental illness, simply cannot know!
    Have you ever instnctively brought your finger to your mouth upon slamming it
    so it hurts? Reflex instinctual action  repeated worldwide-  -untaught!
    And thats just a bruised finger!  That a bruised or mentally ill mind might have an inkling of what to do for it is not so farfetched.
            Those mentally ill who yearn to become well, have that ability.
    Fountain House recognizes the wisdom here.
            1 Medication, yes if it helps.
            2. Treating others as you would yourself.
            3. Encourage self worth
            4. Allow – don’t push, scold, shame, implore, or berate –  the sacred return to wellness. Above all, never damn someone for their mental illness – even if they commit murder.
              As a so-called survivor, I have sat on every post of this fence. Born into ‘normalcy’, I became ‘mentally ill’, I recovered and lapsed more than once. I was a ‘mental patient’,and, recovered,  (incognito, undisclosed), a mental health worker. I interviewed patients while I was sick, and well. I familiarized myself with the mental health system as a patient, employed worker, visitor and friend.
              I can attest to horrific crimes aginst the mentally ill as eye witness, from the earliest 1970’s to curremt. A lot of good changes have occurred. Children no longer have to clean toilets to earn their breakfast anymore, but the mentally ill of all ages still put up with a lot of garbage.
               The good news is that mental illness, like many other illnesses and conditions, responds to attention to its source – (colds – respiratory, diabetes – pancreas, )  – mind and heart. One can argue for milleniums that its this gene,
    that chemistry, environment or upbringing. Fact is – it affects the mind and heart, and so, this is where you focus. I guaruntee if you ask anyone with any type of mental illness where it hurts, you’ll get this answer.
             To heal is to allow in a loving nurturing way, the mentally ill to re-connect with their mind and heart in the very personal way that is theirs. Mental illness is the most personal, private, even sacred condition a human can have. The way back to sanity and health is different for everyone. But what is common is the
    need for humane treatment. Love, understanding, and acceptance. Nowadays,
    add to that – respect, as it is no longer commonplace in our society. And medications, if they help bring a person to a functional mindset.
             Thanks, all, for listening, and again, Pete, for stoking the fires!
    ( a lot of work here for the proposed coalition!!!! )    


  3. KristenKringle says

    Dr. Aschenbrand is very brave to share his story particularly in this frenzied climate of late. I can identify with a lot of what he has gone through and the
    feelings he has had. i needed to read his story, particularly right now because the negative slant in the media regarding people with mental illness has sure sucked lately.  It’s been pretty depressing and demoralizing.  

    I like what I read about Fountain House.  I like that
    they seem to respect people as individuals with individual needs, interests and concerns, and focus on building them up rather than tearing them down. Imagine if psych hospitals operated this way, a pity that so many of them don’t.

    i prefer these kinds of stories because they focus on the individual and that’s what we are.  We all have different thoughts, opinions, and stories. 

    Marabe, like you I wouldn’t know where to begin with all that I have seen inpatent.  The public need to wake up.  There is so much that needs to change.