Building a Working Community: Staff Practices in a Clubhouse for People with Severe Mental Illness


The trademark of mental health clubhouses is that members and staff work side-by-side in partnership to enhance members’ autonomy, competency, and recovery. To explore the intricacies of this unique approach, the author conducted 53 in-depth interviews and 262 h of participant observation in 41 visits over a five-month period in a clubhouse. Findings indicated that staff members built the clubhouse as a “working community” by skillfully integrating three practice domains: social relationships, unit work, and individuals’ needs and pursuits. Distinctive skillsets helped to develop genuine relationships with members and facilitate community building, suggesting a model of generalist practice with specific intentionality.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    There is no “supervisor” position according to the International Standards for Clubhouse Programs. However, for the purpose of this research, the author defined “supervisors” as the Fountain House personnel who were deeply involved in organizational human resource activities related to supervision, training, hiring, and termination. The interviews with supervisors aimed to capture a more comprehensive understanding of staff training and quality control of staff practices.


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An earlier version of the paper was presented at the 19th Annual Conference of the Society for Social Work and Research, New Orleans, LA, USA, the 6th European Conference for Social Work Research, Lisbon, Portugal, and the 8th International Conference on Social Work in Health and Mental Health, Singapore. The author thanks staff and members at Fountain House for their support of this research. The author also thanks Hans Oh, Kathleen O’Hara, and Laura Cordisco Tsai for their assistance with initial data analysis.


This research received no funding support.

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Correspondence to Fang-pei Chen.

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Fang-pei Chen declares that she has no conflict of interest regarding this research.

Human and Animal Rights

The Institutional Review Boards at Fountain House and Columbia University approved this research. All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional research committees and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed Consent

Informed written consent was obtained from all individual participants interviewed in the study.

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Chen, Fp. Building a Working Community: Staff Practices in a Clubhouse for People with Severe Mental Illness. Adm Policy Ment Health 44, 651–663 (2017).

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  • The clubhouse model
  • Generalist practice
  • Psychosocial rehabilitation
  • Working community
  • Mental health recovery