Wow, what a year 2012 has been for me. I lost two dear relatives, won my first journalism award, got to do some traveling around the country (New Orleans, Napa, Vegas, Portland, Los Angeles), was deeply saddened over the passing of mental health activist and Black Men Speak Founder DeWitt Buckingham, and celebrated my sorority's 90th year in Los Angeles. With all that has happened in 2012, I'm going into the holidays with some woes, but prepared with wellness tools.
• I truly understand the Boyz II Men song, "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday." My grandfather and great aunt passed away this year and Christmas won't be the same without them. I'll miss seeing my grandfather in the kitchen. Or hearing him talking about sports while he's watching the basketball game with other male relatives. While the men are watching the game, the women gossip and giggle in the dining room. Every so often my great aunt would say something very colorful or edgy that made us laugh or gasp.
• Going shopping for Christmas dinner without picking up a few diet sodas for my great aunt will be odd. She was a diabetic and lived to be 90.
• I'll miss DeWitt coming around the office with Holiday hugs, doughnuts, followed by some straight talk.
• Christmas shopping! It's time consuming.
• Holiday traffic. Again, it's time consuming.
• Tears—I figure if I need to shed a few tears for missed loved ones then I'll allow myself to just do it.
• Charity—Instead of focusing on the soda for my aunt, I'll just buy extra cans of food and donate them. She was very giving and would want me to do that.
• Internet –- I'm reducing a lot of time in the stores by shopping online. I still need to get a few things in the store, but that'll just take one shopping trip. Everything else will have to come to me by delivery.
• BART and Music -- To avoid Holiday traffic, I'll only go near stores if I absolutely have to. I'll keep my car stocked with my favorite songs, if I do encounter some bumper to bumper moments on the road. If I have to go out, taking the BART will be an option high on my list.
• Cartoons – When I had cable, I watched the Cartoon Network on Christmas Eve and Christmas. They air 24-hour Christmas cartoon marathons. The cartoons were old and new. I don't have cable, but I've been able to catch "The Grinch" and "A Charlie Brown Christmas."
• My favorite holiday albums: Boy II Men Christmas, Temptations Christmas and all of Kenny G's holiday CDs.
• Holiday teas from Celestial Seasonings
• My favorite Holiday wellness tool of all—REST. When the shopping is done and Christmas dinner is over, I look forward to chilling on my sofa and catching up with shows I missed over the year, then take a few long winter naps.
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.
"You can never lose a thing, if it belongs to you," sings Branice McKenize.
I let the words linger and try to really hear them. It's Friday night and I'm waiting for Iyanla Vanzant, the incomparable inspirational speaker to take the stage. Iyanla is a frequent guest teacher for the OWN show (Oprah Winfrey Network) Oprah's Life Class. Sitting in the Scottish Rite auditorium in the company of hundreds of women and three guys, I try to soak up her words for my starving soul.
The theme for the night, "Breaking Through to Boldness," means empowering yourself to be the strongest version of you possible. It is not for the faint of heart, because when you break through to boldness you are accountable for your life and the choices you have made.
When Iyanla steps on stage, her words are so powerful I feel like she is speaking directly to me.
Impromptu Fake One-on-One with Iyanla Vanzant:
K: Things have just been really difficult lately. I’m so tired, there should be a new word for it. I feel like there are so many things I want to do, like grad school, and I don’t know if I have the resources, time, and patience.
Iyanla: Start looking back at what you’ve learned and what you've mastered. Match where you've been with the skills you have acquired and wear them well. Just because you haven’t done it, doesn’t mean you won't.
K: Sometimes, I just want to give up! I mean if you only knew my story. I have been through so much. I just want to know why bad things always happen to me?
Iyanla: Breaking through to boldness means the elimination of all whining! No whining. Breathe, when you feel the whine coming on. Breaking through to boldness means that you take absolute, total, and complete responsibility for every condition in your life.
K: I feel like I keep losing really close friends to me. We just don't see eye to eye anymore. Honestly, the healthier I get the more people I lose. Why does this keep happening? These are people I thought would be in my life forever.
Iyanla: I think our parents did us a disservice when they said play with everyone. You don’t have to play with everyone. Just because you shift doesn’t mean they gonna shift.
K: I'm trying to work hard on my wellness, but I get busy sometimes. There isn't always time to do breathing exercises, yoga, or go to support groups. Sometimes, I just feel so busy taking care of other people, but I will get to myself eventually. I just don't understand why when I am doing those things it isn't enough.
Iyanla: We keep thinking we will get full time awards for part-time devotion. You can't break through to boldness being nice. You wanna break through to boldness? You better get a growl. How often to we crawl on all fours because we are trying to be nice?
K: Sometimes I want to be positive, but my thoughts can be so negative. My thoughts are a like skipping CD telling me a bad phrase over and over again. I don’t know how to shut it off.
Iyanla: Don't stay in your head alone without adult supervision!
K: Wait, say what?
Iyanla: Overthinking can be hazardous to your health. Learn to trust your heart and gut. Don't stay in your head alone without adult supervision!
K: I want to connect with the right people in the right way, but I often find my kindness being taken advantage of. I don't know how to find a balance, because I honestly don’t want to be alone.
Iyanla: Allowing people to show up and behave badly is a misappropriation of power. You are the one who gets to say what goes on in your life.
*These quotes were taken directly from Iyanla Vanzant’s Breakthrough to Boldness presentation at the Heart and Soul Center of Light on September 21, 2012.
A few weeks ago at a staff meeting, our Executive Director Khatera Aslami announced that she was facilitating a Two-Day WRAP (Wellness Recovery Action Plan) Training at the Mental Health Association of San Francisco (MHASF) with fellow advanced facilitator BJ North. She had a few spots open and asked if any PEERS staff wanted to go. My hand shot up without me even thinking about it. Since working at PEERS, I've heard that if you have a chance to attend a ) training with Khatera or BJ, jump at it. Two dynamite facilitators in two days? I couldn't resist. And, I love San Francisco. I didn't even care where in San Francisco the training would be held, I just wanted to spend some time in the city.
A few of my colleagues and I attended the San Francisco training. We all live across the bridge in Oakland and visit the city frequently. But some of us almost had a tourist type of enthusiasm in the city. I even jokingly suggested we go to Fisherman's Warf. Our Communications Manager Shannon Eliot described it best. She didn't go but said we sounded like excited kids on a field trip 20 minutes away from our school. I laughed because she was absolutely right.
MHASF is located right in the heart of Downtown San Francisco and just a few blocks from Union Square. We had time to raid the Gap during a break (they had an additional 40% off clearance price sale). One day for lunch we walked to an Indian restaurant. We made it to Happy Hour in no time because there were so many bars nearby. And I got in some shopping at Burlington's Coat Factory and Ross. Plus it was exciting to see city workers set up decorations for the Giants World Series victory parade. Unfortunately, our last WRAP session was the day before the parade.
I felt so good those two days. I was feeding off the buzz of the city. But it wasn't just San Francisco that was making me happy. I was using some of my wellness tools over those two days: walking, shopping (in moderation), socializing, healthy food and wine (in moderation). But what's really great for me is walking. At PEERS' location, there's nowhere to really walk and the street is not too pedestrian friendly. So walking to all of these destinations or just walking with great scenery gave me more energy and a mood boost. I was already in a good mood, but being in San Francisco really elevated my mood. I think another reason why I was in an extra good mood is that I was getting air. Usually I'm inside during the eight-hour workday. After being in SF, I decided to start taking breaks outside while at work.
Our WRAP training also made me content. I learned a lot about myself and my health. BJ and Khatera were great facilitators and a lot of fun. Many people who visit PEERS use WRAP and say it's beneficial to their mental wellness. Earlier this year, I went to a one-day WRAP orientation. I learned about WRAP but I have a new found appreciation for it after developing my own WRAP plan.
I may have left my heart in San Francisco, but I returned to Oakland with a WRAP plan in hand.
Our community lost three strong, courageous and powerful voices, embodied in DeWitt Buckingham, Darnell Levingston and Michael Bell. All three passed away within several months of each other.
The family and friends of Darnell Levingston alongside 55 individuals from the Pool of Consumer Champions (P.O.C.C.), Alameda County Network of Mental Health Clients, Alameda County Behavioral Health Care Services (A.C.B.H.C.S.) and Peers Envisioning and Engaging in Recovery Services (P.E.E.R.S.) gathered on Saturday, October 20th to come together and celebrate their extraordinary accomplishments.
“This is a great day that we can come together to honor these fallen soldiers, mentors and comrades,” minister Dr. Jasper Lowery said to the attendees.
“It is a wonderful celebration to speak their names and speak their truths,” said attendee Nancy Thomas.
Among DeWitt and Darnell's many undertakings, they were instrumental as the founding members of Black Men Speak. Black Men Speak (BMS) is a group of African-American men who outreach to the general public, sharing their struggles and triumphs with mental health and substance abuse challenges. Roscoe Moseby, a member of BMS, said, “They were colorful, marvelous, spirited men who were wonderful guys”.
About eight members of BMS wore their t-shirts in solidarity to affirm and acknowledge how influential DeWitt and Darnell were “in bringing Black men to the table, [which is why] we have Black men at the table to make decisions for us,” said Dawud Turner. He co-facilitated a W.R.A.P. Group with DeWitt at the Claridge (Ridge) Hotel, a low income housing facility.
While reflecting on Michael, Nancy described him as a “gentle giant who was very quiet but knew how to effectively represent and advocate for others really well."
DeWitt, Darnell and Michael were community advocates on all levels, whether it was at mental health conferences throughout the country, in Sacramento, with the Board of Supervisors in Oakland, or on dangerous street corners throughout East Oakland. They spoke to programs and organizations that serve the African-American community and held them accountable in providing services that were culturally sensitive and socially responsible.
They “opened up community funds and services because they knew how to keep shaking the trees until something fell out,” said mental health activist Sally Zinman.
In remembering Darnell, PEERS Program Manager Sharon Kuehn shared, “Darnell was sweet, kind and complex. He was a diamond in the rough, but he knew how to speak his truth clearly, concisely and with force. He helped pave the way for many African-American men with HIV-AIDS to seek the services they needed.”
Lift Every Voice and Speak member Charlene Jimerson knew Darnell from the days of Howie the Harp and remembered him as someone “interested in everyone having equal rights”.
Tamara Childs, who helped plan the event, presented A Proclamation of Appreciation plaque to Lillydell Levingston, the mother of Darnell, with these words:
“Mr. Darnell Larry Levingston, Community Leader
…You have consistently showed yourself as an out spoken leader for the African American Community and a self-made strong Black Man.
…We thank you for your contributions to the African-American Community, for raising awareness of HIV, as a Community Advocate to Stop the Violence, as a P.O.C.C. Leader, for outreach to Spiritual Communities for mental health awareness, and being a Founder of the African-American Issues Committee and Co-Founder of Black Men Speak.
Your dedication for your work has shown courage, insight, dedication and leadership.”
Another Proclamation of Appreciation plaque was read aloud in honor of DeWitt Buckingham with these words:
“Mr. DeWitt Buckingham, Community Leader…Your Strength, Leadership and Mentoring has opened doors that have never been opened before.We thank you for your contributions as Co-Founder of the African-American Issues Committee, Founder of Black Men Speak and CEO/Founder of your very own Non-Profit New Dynamic/Hope Project.Your dedication and hard work shows the kind of leadership you proclaim.Your legacy and memories will be carried on and continued through all of us.”
DeWitt, Darnell and Michael individually and collectively championed the values of volunteerism, social and political activism, and being voices for the disenfranchised in our community. They were men who “exemplify and model Black Manhood”, said PEERS Web Content and PR Specialist Jenee Darden.
PEERS Executive Director Khatera Aslami-Tamplen added, “My son can learn from their wisdom and how to give back to the community."
A poignant and tender moment came when Darnell's niece spoke on behalf of the family.
“I honestly didn’t know how many lives he touched and how much of an impact he had on others until 15 minutes ago,” she said.
"These men are not gone because their work lives on in the lives they touched," Sally Zinman reminded the crowd. "We need to continue to stand up for all the one’s that go unnoticed. We have a social responsibility to inspire and sow the seeds of inspiration in others.”
The Barbecue Celebration was about celebrating life, strengthening our community and our bonds with one another.
A warm and heartfelt Thank You goes out to: Lillydell Levingston and the family of Darnell Levingston for attending the Barbecue and allowing us the privilege of honoring their son, father and uncle; Kenneth Davis and Lindsey Hart, our Barbecue Pit Masters, for a phenomenal job grilling the hotdogs and hamburgers; our volunteers from Black Men Speak: Roscoe Moseby, Harry Caldwell, Kenneth Davis, Lindsey Hart-- who all worked so hard and tirelessly throughout the day; the Barbecue Planning Committee: Tamara Childs, Jaleah Winn, Joe Anderson, Dr. Jasper Lowery, Sharon Kuehn, Mary Hogden, Katrina Killian and Tando Goduka; Sherman Park for creating the moving and touching videography of DeWitt Buckingham and Darnell Levingston; Barry Hall for the large posters of DeWitt Buckingham and Darnell Levingston that were hung at Kennedy Park; P.O.C.C., P.E.E.R.S., and Alameda County Network of Mental Health Clients for generously providing the funds and support to make the Barbecue into a reality.
Alternatives was a beautiful experience. People from all over the nation gathered for this groundbreaking progressive mental health conference in Portland, Oregon and it was a wonderful thing. I had the opportunity to listen to stories throughout the conference and get to know people as we conversed outside. Pretty soon I had a picture of just what this was about. It was about mental health, it was about fighting for our basic human rights, but mostly it was about coming together as one for a greater cause.
If you asked me what one highlight would be, I probably couldn't answer you. There were so many highlights! I sat in a meeting with Mary Ellen Copeland where we talked about restraint and seclusion in the mental health system and ways in which we could change that. I was proud when she enlisted our help because changing that system is something I am very passionate about. I listened to Will Hall talk about coming off medication, and I learned a great deal about it. I had the opportunity of meeting him personally and giving him my business card in the lobby. Will’s keynote and workshops were really popular and after attending it myself I could easily see why.
I had the unique pleasure of listening to two presenters, Sharon Kuehn and Grace Sweet, practice their presentation in the room with me and I took pictures as they followed through with their presentation. They showed a powerful video that really made us think, and they spoke of having good intention. One of the participants wrote, "My life will never be the same after this presentation" and I would have to agree. MY life will never be the same after this conference!
From the ice cold lemon water at every floor to the beautiful waterfront view, staying at the Marriott Waterfront really made me feel like a queen. The bellhops would run to open the door for you, the maid was really kind, and anything I needed was a call away. I enjoyed the pool and Jacuzzi, and lived life lavishly for four glorious days. I enjoyed my experience so much that I didn't want to come home. But, I realized how blessed I was to be a part of this, and just how blessed I am to be one of the Community Liaisons for PEERS. PEERS is where I belong!
This year at Alternatives 2012, the Alameda County TAYi (Transitional Age You Initiative) co-hosted the Young At Heart Creativity Zone (formerly known as the Arts/Drop-In Room) and co-led the Youth Rising plenary session. The TAYi team was honored to reunite with the nation’s leading youth groups and youth advocates: MY LIFE, YOUTH POWER, YOUTH IN ACTION, YOUTH MOVE, and YOUTH VOICE. The groups focused on creating and sharing what activities and actions have been helpful to build system change and stigma reduction in youth communities. These groups began coming together at Alternatives 2009. Although this is the first year these groups have collaborated in co-hosting a creativity zone, our first big youth plenary session was at Alternatives 2011.
The youth voice has defiantly been growing within the Alternatives conference. It was refreshing to see all of the youth supporters get up and dance to the flash mob opening, which I am sure helped capture everyone’s attention. It also helped me relax for my big three-minute moment of Alternatives fame. No matter how much I practiced, I was still nervous. I was scared to forget a part of my speech or talk so fast that no one would understand me. But one thing I was sure of, no one was going to judge me. I have always felt safe to be myself at all of the Alternatives conferences. It was from my first Alternatives in 2008 that I was inspired by a youth leader form YOUTH POWER to continue advocating for youth inclusion within my community. I had my first advocacy meeting that same night with Jay Mahler and expressed my concerns. Not knowing exactly how fast Jay works his advocacy magic, on our airplane ride home he talked to legendary advocate Sally Zinman and PEERS Executive Director Khatera Aslami about how things were going to change for youth the following year. That year things changed for TAY in Alameda County.
That is why going up and closing the youth plenary session was big for me. I wanted everyone to know what great work the TAYi has been doing; talk about the importance of peer support, education and training; show love for those OG’s who have paved the way for the youth and passed down the torch. Most importantly, I kindly asked the audience to take immediate action in supporting our youth. I have hope that everyone was able to commit to sharing their story with a youth and listen to a youth's story without judgment. I have hope that the adults will get youth involved in all aspects of their programs, for example, planning process, decision-making, and development planning. “Nothing about us without us” includes us, the youth, because although we are youth we share the same passion for systems change. So why not unite, and continue to grow the youth involvement within Alternatives.
This year Peerlink National Technical Assistance Center hosted Alternatives 2012 in Portland Oregon, The theme of the conference was "Honoring Our History, Building Our Future." As a returning participant of such an innovative peer-nun system of change for mental health recovery, my involvement was different this year in comparison to last year’s Alternatives Conference. Last Year, I was a presenter of a workshop. Whereas this year, I volunteered as an onsite worker who ensured that the daily workshops ran smoothly. Each morning, all of the volunteers met to receive their assignment. I was fortunate enough to be assigned to work workshops I was interested in.
However, there was one group in particular that was the highlight of my Alternatives 2012 experience. The workshop that I am referring to was entitled, "Mindfulness, Trauma and Mental Health Recovery" by Jim Probert.
Jim Probert, the facilitator of this workshop is presently a psychologist. In addition to him being a licensed professional who clinical psychology received special training to work with individuals that have mental health issues in a variety of settings such as private practices, county mental health, community mental health, or hospitals, he is a person who identifies as experiencing mental health challenges.
As far back as 1982, Jim Probert is someone who has been hospitalized and prescribed psychotropic medications. He has traumatic experiences and continues on his healing journey of recovery every day.
Specifically in this workshop, "Mindfulness, Trauma and Mental Health Recovery," Jim put aside some of his professional training and offered more of his personal experiences of dealing with terrifying experiences and his spiritual trek of their being a common ground for all of us as human beings. Jim offered each participant a different way of looking at painful, distressing, and hurtful happenings. First, he encouraged everyone in the training not to see trauma as random experiences of something that happened to us, or as events that we cannot recover from. He suggested that we allow trauma to be metaphoric situations and/or circumstances that we learn from, "stand up to" with our emotions, and push through so we can experience healing.
The way in which Jim offered this was by implementing a very useful tool. The tool he provided was creating a mindfulness journal, and on each page of the journal each person would have two columns, (one entitled Emotion/Experience and the other column entitled Intention/Purpose), and in the notebook each side of the page would allow a person to acknowledge each category, not trying to make away with what happened but instead deal with the emotions in order to have healing and self-love occur. From there, each person could then start with developing positive statements of self-acceptance for him or her, in turn beginning to practicing valuing ourselves and believe in our own basic potentials.
Jim projected these tool offerings by openly and honestly sharing is journey, and how it's helped him. He also kind heartedly listened to others share, honoring their experience. While actively listening to each person express themselves, Jim held each person in high regard, no judgment, shame or blame. As a result of Jim being authentic, the room the workshop was held in felt like the safest place to be.
Overall, the order and process of the workshop was extremely empowering and healing for me. I am very thankful to the space he created and the transformative healing tools he provided.
I look forward to next year's Alternatives Conference, and I hope to attend more workshops facilitated by Jim Probert.
Whole Health Recovery-The Mind Body Connection with Melody Riefer
As I read over the abstracts, the whole health recovery workshop spoke directly to me as a mental health advocate. The synopsis in short said that we would be exploring the whole health recovery kit created by Pat Deegan, Ph.D. and associates. This basically included not just treatment plans for the mental aspect of health, but a recovery model that would include taking care of the health of the body as well. Melody Riefer started us off with telling her story of why she needed recovery: the loss of two close loved ones, high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, and depression. Like many of us in recovery, she also smoked cigarettes, and was overweight. What sparked her motive to change was how she watched her loved ones pass away while bedridden and in pain. Riefer said she “did not want to die a slug.”
One thing I constantly tell others is that mental health recovery is not all in the head. Mental health recovery is the vital piece of one’s wellness that translates to all other aspects of health, physically and spiritually. If you are overweight and can barely move around, that is not exactly healthy. If you find yourself having no purpose in life, and no outlet or source to draw strength from to regain that purpose, that is not exactly healthy. Through Riefer’s own testimony, she found that her head and her body needed to be friends. Through working out 3-4 times a week, weight training, water aerobics, and the beautiful resource of peer support, her diabetes was in remission. She went from taking four different typed of meds, to half of one dose. She no longer smokes and has lost 62 pounds so far.
She presented five important factors that impact a person’s physical health challenges:
1.) Mental Health medicine -- a lot of them cause weight gain.
2.) Unhealthy Habits -- smoking cigarettes, sitting around, and constant eating.
3.) Stigma in Medical Care -- some MD’s, after finding out you have mental health diagnosis blame your health issue on the idea that you are mentally insane, and unable to consciously address where your pain is coming from.
4.) Vicarious Trauma -- a lot of folks in the system have been raped, abused, endured adverse childhood experiences that has shaped their interactions with others. This is a barrier because a person may not even trust facilities that really can help them.
5.) Poverty-- when you have limited resources, you are forced to buy cheap unhealthy foods, can’t really go out to find good doctors, etc.
She then gave five important solutions for her own recovery, and as peer, I will definitely be adopting these to my own recovery.
1.) Have patience and acceptance of your own pace of change. Nothing good comes easy, or happens overnight.
2.) Develop new habits instead of attempting to break old ones.
3.) Harm Reduction techniques such as finding viable healthy options, like eating frozen yogurt instead of ice cream.
4.) Develop new perspective/attitude about doctors. Be the primary care giver of your own health and tell them what you need instead of them telling you what you need.
5.) Take the fewest number of meds possible, no poly-pharmacy. Albeit the idea is that medication is the main form of treatment for mental health challenges. We all know from our own experiences that there are other solutions such as exercise, healthy eating, peer support, and sharing recovery stories, which can work toward treating mental health challenges as well.
**PEERS advises that you check with your doctor first before making any changes to your medication or medical care.
Can you imagine someone you love or even yourself being left in physical restraints for four weeks?
Well, a man in Japan experienced this horrific violation. He shared it with Mary Ellen Copeland the last time she visited the country. Sadly, human rights violations like this are still happening and are not rare. This is exactly why Mary Ellen Copeland, PhD, author of the Wellness Recovery Action Plan; Edward Anthes, human rights advocate; and Matthew Federici, Executive Director of the Copeland Center facilitated the institute on Thursday, Oct.11 at the 2012 Alternatives Conference. Their goal was to bring a group of people together to discuss and develop action plans to address this and many other horrific human rights violations in the mental health system around the world.
"It's disgusting and has been going on for generations," expressed Mary Ellen to a group of over 50 people. After reading more about the issues in Robert Whitaker’s book Mad in America, she states it was so bad and too upsetting that she couldn't sleep. "To read about the horrible things that have happened to people over time…We still have horrific human rights violations in the mental health system and need to do something about it."
The first half of the institute focused on hearing from the participants about their experiences. Some of what was shared included:
- People were involuntarily sent to psychiatric hospitals and were being further abused by getting stripped searched in the hospital;
- Like the man from Japan, children and adults were being forced into seclusion and restraints, including chemical restraints;
- People still had encounters with providers that unfortunately didn’t believe recovery was possible for everyone;
- Services are still neglecting physical health side effects from antipsychotic medications. This includes ignoring the data that people who are treated for psychiatric conditions are dying 25 years earlier than the average population.
After hearing these and many more stories, we took a break. Following our break Mary Ellen, Ed and Matthew shared what Pennsylvania has done to end these human rights violations.
In the state of Pennsylvania, all mental health state hospital staff, psychiatric emergency response teams and peer specialists were trained for two weeks. The peer trainings (which were led by people with lived experience of mental health challenges) focused on emphasizing that effective treatment is a recovery-supported approach. With this new initiative, the state went further and became transparent about seclusion and restraints data from the psychiatric hospitals. Their policies targeted the elimination of seclusion and restraints, and emphasized that the use of them would be seen as treatment failure. Hospital environments became safer for individuals receiving services and their support staff. More Peer Specialist positions were created when five state hospitals were closed down. As a result of this, increases in employment and housing and major reductions in re-hospitalization occurred.
With the success of Pennsylvania, we moved our discussion to action plans of how to bring positive change to the mental health system throughout the country and world.
One of the action items that received a lot of attention was the development of an activism curriculum to promote people coming together to support one another in speaking up and engaging in system change. "Un-muting our mute button" as David Oaks, Executive Director of MindFreedom International stated. David and Mary Ellen have been discussing the need to develop a curriculum focused on mutual support groups to create active community members who speak out when human rights violations occur.
Other action items included more people downloading the free PEERS Media Watch app for iPhones. It's a tool for anyone, including activists, who want to stop the negative portrayals of people with mental health challenges in the media. Or thank the media when they do positive portrayals. Activists can also get involved with occupy the APA (American Psychiatric Association).
After the institute, Mary Fala from Norristown, PA shared "I felt this institute was productive, especially the idea of creating an activist curriculum for support groups throughout the country. That will help to normalize this competency of people with mental heath issues to help others." She added, "Overall, I felt very heard."
Terry Bryne from MHASF commented, "The issue is so huge and it's absolutely important we have commitments to do something…There were wonderful ideas and great energy."
As a WRAP Facilitator, I appreciated how Mary Ellen, Ed and Matthew upheld the values and ethics of WRAP, honored each person, and created space for all of us to share and learn from each other. I, along with the majority of Institute attendees, committed to continue the discussion and take action.
If you are interested in participating in this subject please visit: www.mindfreedom.com, www.wrapandrecoverybooks.com, www.copelandcenter.com or email Mary Ellen Copeland at email@example.com.
Mary Ellen Copeland (far right) delivers her remarks during her Alternatives 2012 instutite.