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
My brief summer internship at PEERS was quite an experience to say the least. With everything from sitting in on episode tapings with Shannon to attending my first zumba class with Jenee for an interview, my time was spent learning about the media/marketing industry. But along the way, I found out more about the organization itself and how dedicated each employee was to the cause. I discovered that, whether it was through a suggestion of early morning dancing to get everyone pumped for the day or through kind words from every staff member on people’s birthdays, PEERS promoted mental health in their own company as well as in the outside world. Through the dozens of articles and blogs I read, and various interviews I listened to, I realized how big a deal mental health is becoming and how hard we should work together to fight the stigma that engulfs the mental health community.
But the one thing that I really took away from this entire summer was this: to keep an open mind. There is a wealth of not only informational facts out there, but an abundance of things people can teach you. I learned that people are truly kind from the man who biked around the world to raise mental health awareness. I found out that even the small act of promising to listen will inspire others to fight back from our Facebook pledge. I discovered that all people need is support and hope from the man who battled suicide and now runs a program to help others with a mental illness. I was inspired not to put up with any crap from anyone by a mental health blog writer. I was reminded that happy people make others around them happy too by a zumba instructor. And I learned from so many involved in the mental health community to never let the fear win, whether it's the fear that you’ll get fired because of your condition or fear that people won’t accept you or fear that others will judge you, never let fear stop you from anything.
Overall, my time at PEERS was a rewarding, inspiring, and overall good time. I was moved by the stories I heard from interviews and read from articles and know now more than ever that just one person can really make a difference.
When I began journalism school at the University of Southern California, my dream was to be a magazine writer. I had no interest in broadcast reporting, but my master’s program required students take multimedia classes. Everyday our television-broadcast teacher gave us a current events quiz. Someone in the class figured out the instructor pulled her questions from the morning news rundown on our local public radio station. I began listening to public radio to bump up my quiz scores, but something even better happened. The radio bug bit me. Using sound for storytelling fascinated me. After graduate school I stayed in Los Angeles and went to work as producer for NPR and later American Public Media. Our weak job market brought me back to the Bay Area (we can talk about long-term underemployment and mental health on another day).
Months after moving back to the Bay Area, I landed a job at PEERS. On the first day my supervisor Shannon Eliot gave me a checklist of duties. To my absolute delight I saw “podcast” on the list. I couldn’t wait to pull out my microphone and look for story ideas. Our Assistant Director Lisa Smusz suggested I review an article about people linking Casey Anthony to bipolar disorder. Anthony is the recently freed mother from Florida accused of killing her toddler. Mental health advocate and writer Andy Behrman wrote the article for About.com. I interviewed him for the podcast about bipolar stigma and why he stopped being a spokesman for the makers of Abilfy. Not only did he stop endorsing the drug, but he made a video spoofing Abilify.
My interview with Behrman was great, but not without technical drama. My recorder cut off in the middle of the interview, there was a problem with my phone and one of the recording devices left my stimulating interview with an annoying buzz sound. Can you say, “AHHHHHHH!”? Keep in mind, I come from a background of working in a studio with an engineer. I was a one-woman news team in this instance. But like my grandma always says, “It’s gonna be okay because it has to be.” In other words, somehow things will work out. She was right. Thanks to some in-person coaching from PEERS receptionist/media genius Oden, and long-distance support from sound engineering gods Carlos Ascencio and Henry Howard, I was able to polish up the sound quality. I’m excited about the future of this show. The PEERS Podcast will feature a variety of voices and stories related to mental health. Some stories will make you reach for the tissue box or the phone to contact your legislator. Other stories will inspire and even make you laugh. Whatever your reaction, I hope you walk away from your ear buds and speakers with some enlightenment on mental health. We welcome your ears and a few minutes of your time to the PEERS Podcast. Thanks for listening!
If you have suggestions for future shows, please leave a comment.
Like every Thursday night at 10pm I tuned into one of my favorite juicy medical dramas “Private Practice.” Charlotte and Cooper were finally getting married and I was not going to miss the nuptials. Wedding bells aside, another storyline caught my attention in this episode titled “Something Old, Something New.” It was something real that, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, affects 6.5 million senior Americans -- depression.
Here’s the storyline:
Naomi visits her patient Marian, an elderly woman residing in assistant living. Normally Marian dresses nice, but during this visit Naomi notices something different. Marian’s hair is uncombed and she’s wearing frumpy clothes. The curtains are drawn and her mood is low. I mean really low. She’s lonely. Her husband of 50 years died some years ago and her Scrabble buddy recently passed away. Dr. Fife, who is relentlessly pursuing Naomi’s love, sits in on the session. He also notices Marian’s behavior and tells her nonchalantly she’s depressed and a neurosurgeon could “zap the sadness out” with an operating procedure called anterior singulotomy. This entails the surgeon operating on the part of the brain that causes depression.
Dr. Fife’s disregard for Marian’s feelings irked me. He tells her a surgeon can “zap” away her sadness as if her mind is some kind of arcade game. She passes on the surgery and counseling. Dr. Fife is not a psychologist but his insensitivity reminded me of one of the reasons why some people who need therapy don’t go. People want to be treated humanely when they seek help. Opening up to friends and family about your mental health condition isn’t easy, let alone a stranger. Dr. Fife just saw Marian’s problem as something that could be resolved with a knife, but he missed the whole picture. He didn’t recognize her feelings and that she deserved respect. This is evident in a scene where he’s discussing her condition with other doctors who disagree with pushing her into the procedure. “That’s the depression talking, clouding her judgment and making her incapable of an informed decision,“ Dr. Fife said about Marian’s objection to the surgery. Thank goodness for the psychologist Sheldon who checked him, “Depression doesn’t necessarily make someone incompetent.” I would add that her suffering with a mental health condition doesn’t justify in taking away her power.
The episode packed a lot of issues into one storyline: Surgical treatment versus counseling for depression, doctor insensitivity, patient rights and their voice. I especially liked how the show addressed elderly depression and seniors sometimes feeling a loss of control over their lives once they become dependent. I imagine that’s difficult when you’ve spent most of your life as an adult and people younger than you are trying to help. “You want me to talk to some stranger half my age and tell him I’m sad and listen to him try to put things in a perspective he doesn’t have?!” Marian responded when Naomi recommended counseling. Well, Marian didn’t get the surgery or therapy. In a true Hollywood ending, Dr. Fife actually opened his ears and became her confidant. Hopefully their heart to heart will encourage her to sit down with a therapist. Marian just needed to be heard, like many of of us do.