Blog /Mental Health Matters
On Thursday October 25, 2012, the PEERS staff attended a conference titled, “The ISMS Collaborative,” with the intention of better understanding the African-American experience. This is so we could be even more culturally responsive as that is the target population we are presently reaching out to under the Social Inclusion campaign.
This conference was part two of the series “Building hope and change in our health organizations.” The series hopes to look at how we live in a distinguished society that has unequal relationships whether it is age, gender, class, sexual orientation, able-bodyness/disability and other isms. There were two featured speakers that hosted the conference. They were Prof. Ken Hardy of Drexel University and Nancy Kahn, a nonviolent communications and “Transforming Oppression” trainer.
For the most part, the conference as a whole provided me with a wealth of information. The forum in which this very important and knowledgeable discussion transpired allowed my level of consciousness to be heightened and my broadened view of choices to be confirmed. Moreover, the importance of stopping the silence was confirmed, as well as the significant power, transformation, and liberation that comes from speaking from the heart.
As a collective, there were challenging conversations about internalized oppression and privilege. In small groups, we participated in interactive dialogues about increasing our awareness and understanding about these complicated issues. The main objective that I got from the conference was that in order to increase one’s capacity to recognize, understand and address internalized privilege and oppression, whether it’s in personal relationships or in our work, there has to be some willingness from ALL parties involved to look at dynamics of power, as it is part of our relationships. Also, until those essential dynamics are recognized about power, it will be difficult for change to occur. Once there is an acknowledgement of the significance in addressing issues of power, the distinctions between those who are privileged and those who are not as fortunate can change, and then manifest.
I think that while both parties have responsibilities in relation to healing relationships, the tasks are not equal. Reason being, there are those individuals who are in privileged positions and others who are in less fortunate positions. Of course, I don’t think these categories of privilege and less fortunate are complete. However, I do believe that it is important to communicate what the different responsibilities might be for those in privileged positions and those in less fortunate positions so healing can authentically transpire.
With that said, I firmly believe that the first responsibilities for the privileged are to overcome mistaken notions about equality and inequality. Traditionally, I believe it’s been “normal” for the privileged to just assume that everyone and everything is equal. One of the privileges of the privileged is to be oblivious to the life experiences of oppressed populations. Not only must the privileged acknowledge the existence of marginalization, they must find some way to appreciate the inequality and the suffering of the less fortunate.
In turn, people of privilege cannot turn away at their first experience of rejection or hostility when reaching out to those who are less fortunate. If we, as members of marginalized groups, gave up when we experienced hostility, we would get nowhere in life. Again if relationships across difference are to be healed, then open honest communication is needed. Like the ideology taken from Mary Ellen Copeland’s Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) we should adhere to the principles and ethics of holding each person with the utmost high as human beings first who all have beating, pulsating hearts on the same side of their chest.
Moreover, each person knowing that the most important part of this process is that we recognize everyone's voices are important and valuable. Regardless of one’s background or experience, their speaking up and speaking out can break down barriers, eliminate stigma and discrimination of age, gender, class, sexual orientation, and mental health issues. Speaking up and speaking out embraces the idea that we are all one race, the human race.
At the same time, there are many ethnic groups in society that have experienced unjustifiable forms of racism and stigma. In particular, the ethnic group that I can identify with that has experienced serious subjugation against their will is the African American community. A group of people who unwillingly experienced brutal doings and heinous acts done onto them during the slave trade, as well as approximately 465 years of the atrocious and animalistic actions of slavery in the U.S. In turn, the result being tremendous on the psyche for African American people, especially being that Civil Rights is 48 years young.
Therefore, many African American people continue to have feelings and experiences of subjugation due to the occurrences of these colossal events in this country’s history. Nonetheless, it is often times seen by many in society that feelings of rage that do exist in the African American community are not justifiable. For me, rage is not anger which can be an immediate response to a particular situation. Rage is historical and it’s tied to our experiences of control and oppression. There is nothing episodic about the rage that is felt; it’s long term. But as African-Americans, we need to try to understand our rage and find ways to use it in ways that are constructive for us as individuals and for our communities.
I also believe that if we can find ways to move through the feelings of rage and issues of oppression, we can continue to excel. Otherwise, we will only remain scared or be victims who are destructive to their own plight.
During the conference, Ken Hardy offered a framework to bring this into context by suggesting that we apply what he calls the “VCR” concept to our interactions with one another as people first. VCR stands for Validate, Challenge and Request. The “VCR” concept basically encourages that we each be the expert of our own experience, NOT anyone else’s. And we each create the space for the telling of one’s story by actively listening, not reacting quickly. Lastly the "VCR "concept suggests we make space for both thoughts and feelings to be expressed. The “VCR” concept was not presented as something easy to do, but basically something that we each must consciously make an effort to do in order for this process to take place.
I would only add that as we each boldly and courageously speak our own truth, we also take personal responsibility for the way we think, feel, and act.
As we at P.E.E.R.S. continue to focus on the African American community, I look forward to the next steps after our participation in this conference, which set the foundation for us understanding the “isms” that do exist. That being, learning more about the impact slavery has had, continues to hold, and is reflected in the thought processes and behaviors of the African American culture today. All of this information we are continuing to learn is so our intent as an organization, who cares about being all inclusive, can have meaning and value to the work we do.
CASRA features workshops for consumers and mental-health workers. I sat in on the seminar titled "Compassion Fatigue or Vicarious Trauma." I learned that qualities such as empathy, care, regard, and concern (which most therapists and mental health workers possess), are the very same qualities that can cause compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is characterized by the onset of fatigue, difficulty concentrating, shortness of breath, depression, anxiety and a general preoccupation with work that can greatly interfere with a person’s ability to work.
As a licensed psychotherapist, I know that Compassion fatigue is often the result of working with people who have experienced trauma and whose lives are in a state of great upheaval over extended periods of time. The accumulation of work experiences with those in prolonged states of chronic trauma can overwhelm the boundaries of even the most seasoned mental health workers. Therefore, preventative steps must be taken to thwart compassion fatigue.
Some of the ways to help prevent compassion fatigue involve developing a therapeutic community, which can help to lift us and validate our self-care habit. A therapeutic community can also hold us accountable for using good self-care, support our sense of resilience, not allow us to isolate, and immerse us in humor. Another practice that is known to be effective in preventing compassion fatigue is called psychological resilience. Resilience in psychology refers to the idea of an individual's ability to cope with stress and adversity. This coping may result in the individual bouncing back to a previous state of normal functioning, or using the experience of exposure to adversity to produce a strengthening effect and function better than expected. Resiliency is a very important aspect of the overall capacity for one to function well under stress, and helps prevent compassion fatigue.