Blog /October 2011
This year's theme for the 25th Alternatives conference is "Coming Home: Creating Our Own Communities of Wellness and Recovery." I felt right at home at the "Oral History Projects: We've Done Them and You Can Too" workshop. I love audio and good storytelling, which is why I host our PEERS podcast. Oral history is more than what sounds good to the ears. As co-facilitator Oryx Cohen from the Empowerment Center noted in the presentation, oral history can be a tool for social change.
Often what I hear from consumers is that a major help in their recovery process was when someone gave them a voice and cared enough to listen. Oral history stories play a part in silencing stigma. Someone not knowledgeable of mental health issues can hear the story and voice of another's experience. I think that's far more powerful and educational than getting your information on mental health from a film or news story that displays the same old stereotypes of people with mental health challenges as being subhuman and incapable of functioning in society.
With the Internet, oral histories posted online can reach consumers all over the world. Cohen told the crowd that a consumer institutionalized in South Africa called him on his cell phone in United States. The consumer had access to the oral history project Cohen directed called Mind Freedom. Of course, Cohen wondered how some man in South Africa found his cell phone number. But, that speaks to power of letting someone tell their own story.
Social change takes some change, as in money. Co-facilitator Bill Shumaker chronicles stories of mental health recovery from consumers in Arkansas. For his ongoing project "In the Voices of Experience and Recovery Oral History Project," Shumaker's team was able to attain $25,000 in grant funding. Smaller oral history projects may not require as much. Shumaker also emphasized seeking legal help to draft an interview agreement for subjects to sign.
At the end of the workshop I filled out an evaluation form. One of the questions asked if we would use the information learned in the workshop. Bill Shumaker and Oryx Cohen definitely planted a seed in my head. My answer to that question is, "Oh yeah."
Oryx Cohen and Bill Shumaker
This morning, Janice Sorensen and Andy Grant of Western Mass Recovery Learning Community presented their workshop, "The Artist First Approach to Peer Work in Mental Health Recovery: Finding, Engaging and Connecting The Artists in Our Communities." They discussed how they created an opportunity for peers to share their stories and express themselves through art, which each artist exhibited in their own show.
At the beginning of the workshop, each attendee stated what type of art they participate in and how it makes them feel. Repeatedly, participants mentioned that they could get lost in their art, taking a moment away from the stress and difficulties of life. Although the presentation focused on visual art, the art that I get lost in is dance. I have danced ever since I can remember and truly started taking ballet seriously at age 10. For me, dance has always been a time away from the stresses of life, a place to fully express myself, and a source of my nearest and dearest friends. Although ballet is strict in its rules and discipline, there is a freedom to interpret the music and movement and express your inner-most feelings.
I particularly love dancing on a sunny Sunday afternoon when I have no cares in the world. I can let my light heart leap and soar. But, when I have been having a bad day or a bad week, nothing can lift my spirits more than dance. I can go to the studio, stand at the barre, and know that the movements I am creating and perfecting are purely mine. All dancers know how to plie and pirouette, but nobody's looks exactly like mine. No body puts the same exact experience and feeling behind them. I can get lost in the intricacies of the movements and combinations; I can truly let my mind go. When I am dancing I don't have the opportunity to think about the laundry that needs to be done or the dishes that need cleaning. I only have the time to think about the position of my arms, whether my feet are pointed, and if I am balanced perfectly on my leg. It's a time when I am the center of my attention, and no one or nothing else is.
I truly believe that anything you are passionate about and allow yourself to become lost in — whether it be photography, water colors, collage, or dance — can help you to become a more expressive, happy, and content person. I've been lucky to find my passion in life, and I plan on continuing to indulge in it as long as my body lets me.
I stepped out into a warm rain as I left the SAMHSA ADS Center meeting this morning. As I dodged the droplets, trying in vain to stay dry, it occurred to me: We at this conference are those raindrops. As individuals we are mere single drops of water. As small groups in our organizations we are a steady rain. But if we can join together on a larger scale, we become a massive rushing river.
Make no mistake, one single drop of water has power — as anyone who has tried to sleep through the surprisingly disturbing sound of a slowly dripping sink can attest. But it pales in comparison to the power of water drops combined into a massive rushing river — a force that can knock down buildings and carve through the hardest of granite.
I can feel the river swelling when I'm at Alternatives, and at meetings like the SAMHSA ADS Center gathering this morning. Over breakfast we had the opportunity to meet and put faces with the names and disembodied voices we have heard on so many conference calls. Even more powerfully, we had the chance to hear about the wonderful projects and creative ways in which these individuals and organizations were helping to change the national mindset about people with mental health issues.
Participants proudly shared updates on projects as varied as poetry for personal power, art as a tool to talk about trauma in a non-threatening manner, films about young adults in recovery from mental health and substance abuse issues, lessons learned from work with different nations of Native Americans, and so much more.
While the projects and outcomes that people highlighted were wonderful, the truly compelling part of this meeting was watching the connections happening around the tables as people spoke. Slowly, and then more rapidly, individuals started seeing connections between the work that was being done. Tools developed for one program were just the thing that another needed to move forward. Problems that seemed insurmountable in one community were offered new solutions from a similar problem in another region.
This is why national gatherings like Alternatives are so important to our work. You see it time and again: The energy changes around the table. People realize they are no longer working in isolation, are no longer the only voice for change. You sense there are others with you in the work. The water drops begin to coalesce into a downpour, and then the downpour becomes a river.
Suddenly, the impenetrable granite wall of public stigma against people living with a mental health issue doesn't look so formidable and unchangeable after all.
Maintaining wellness for me means taking care of my mind, body and soul. For my first workshop at my first Alternatives conference, I decided to get my experience started on a spiritual tip. I attended the panel "Restoring the Spirit: A Celebration of Culturally Diverse Wellness Practices from Lived Experiences."
Catherine Quinerly's presentation resonated with me. She is the community voice policy director for the Transformation Center in Roxbury, Mass. Quinerly is Puerto Rican. Her spirituality is a blend of her Pentecostal and Santeria upbringing. I am a nondenominational Christian. Although our faiths have some differences, we have similar views on living life. Quinerly presented a list of principles to the workshop she lives by which she says feed her spirituality:
- Live your joy
- Take time for self-renewal
- Be Open
- Freedom to Explore
- Inner Goodness
I love these principles because they’re liberating. Quinerly referenced her love for nature when she discussed her principles of openness and taking advantage of our freedom to explore. While attending Alternatives in Anaheim, Calif., last year, she and a friend took some time to hike Laguna Canyon. She said once she reached the peak of hill, she and her friend split off, but not too far and cried. They reconvened. "I can’t believe I'm doing this," her friend told Qunierly. "I can’t believe I’m doing this," she replied.
I know that feeling. I got teary eyed years ago when I arrived to the London flat where I would spend my summer. I was finally living my joy and dream to travel overseas, and giving myself freedom to explore new cultures. And during a time of great anxiety I sought a mindfulness workshop, led by a cool Buddhist priestess, as my self-renewal tool. Everyone in the class took a solo mindful walk in a small garden. The peace my mind and soul desperately needed was truly a God send. That peace allowed me to connect to my inner goodness I had abandoned during all of the commotion in my life. Somehow the silence opened my heart to forgiving others and myself. That moment felt so good, it brought tears of joy and peace.
Sometimes we don't know how our actions will affect others. I never actually wrote down my life's principles. Actually looking at principles on a flip chart that gave both me, and a woman I never met, balance in our lives was a blessing. Thank you Catherine. Thank you God.
"Somebody steals your credit card and hits you for $1000 worth of charges, but you called and reported the card stolen right away. What's the maximum amount you are responsible for?"
Silence fills the room. A few guesses are shouted out. No one gets the right answer.
It may sound like a scene from a high school classroom, but today the young people are the teachers waiting patiently for a correct answer from their adult-aged students who laugh nervously around an enormous, hand-painted board game.
Created entirely by youth, the game simulates realistic situations from a youth perspective fostering conversation and learning in a fun, non-threatening format. As players move through the game they earn points while learning life skills such as today's credit lesson that has the adult players stumped and silent.
The game is the latest project of the Transitional Age Youth Initiative (TAYi), a program that serves and is operated by youth aged 16-25 who self-identify as having lived experience of mental health issues, or have been involved in the foster care or juvenile justice system.
Letty Elenes, staff member of PEERS and one of the coordinators of TAYi states that the program "gives youth in the system a voice by giving them the chance to attend national conferences like Alternatives."
The program also creates opportunities for its members to get involved in youth panels and focus groups, as well as creating training opportunities such as Wellness and Recovery Action Planning facilitation so they can move beyond being the recipient of services and have the skills to become youth peer specialists.
Funded through the California Mental Health Services Act and an Innovations grant from Alameda County Behavioral Health Care Services, TAYi goes beyond just educating and involving youth in existing services, but is designed to help youth actually change the system itself.
"We're part of the solution, not the problem," says Brianna Williams, also a PEERS staff member and coordinator of TAYi.
Members develop leadership skills, receive education, give community input, create change in the mental health system and contribute to ending stigma against people with mental health issues.
The youth running the Alternatives presentation have taught the adults in the room a thing or two about credit. Embarrassed groans go around the room as Brianna reads the game card revealing how much individuals who have had their credit card stolen are responsible for.
"The answer is $50. If you report your card stolen right away, the maximum you will be held accountable for is $50."
The young adults leading the workshop smile, perhaps sensing that they aren't just creating a board game, but are poised to change the game entirely.
The TAY Initiative Workshop featured an innovative life skills board game
We’re here in sunny Florida at the Alternatives conference, and we are all here to talk about mental health. Oftentimes, mental health and physical health are thought of as two completely different entities. However, more and more people are recognizing the link between the two—without sound physical health, it’s difficult to be well mentally and vice versa. David Richardson and Jennifer Padron presented a workshop entitled “Exercising Your Way to Wellness” this morning. I left feeling more motivated and ready to take hold of my physical and mental wellness by committing to fitting more exercise into my life.
One thing that really hit home for me that David mentioned was: There is no try. Just do.
One of the few fights I have ever had with my mom was when I was preparing for a geometry exam in the seventh grade. I incessantly whined that there was absolutely no way that I could memorize the massive amount of information given to me in the allotted time. My mom insisted that I needed a “can-do attitude.” I admit, begrudgingly, that I work to uphold the “can-do attitude”—I always aim to be positive and do my best in any given situation. However, I believe David’s statement makes it so that I am that much more accountable for my actions. When I try to add exercise to my daily routine, I give myself an excuse to sit on the couch with a bag of chips instead. I mean, I tried to workout, right? There are no excuses when you decide to DO something instead of just TRY to do it.
Moving forward, I am not going to try to fit working out into my daily and weekly routine, I WILL. I will take my dog on extra long walks, and I will take ballet classes three times a week. Hey, you might even see me doing a few leg-lifts at work. And if making sure I feel good mentally and physically means that I am going to sleep a half hour later or spend a little less time in front of the tv, then so be it. I know that I deserve to feel my best—we all do—and with this pep-talk from David and Jennifer, I’m ready to hit the gym.