Program helps those recovering from mental illness through sharing stories
When Joel Slack addressed the graduates of the RESPECT Institute at East Central Regional Hospital on Friday, February 22, his message was simple — telling the stories of mental health illness helps reverse the stigma that is widely associated with it by revealing the humanity of those suffering from it.
“I believe that it’s not until we see a glimpse of the humanity in someone that we are able to truly respect them,” he said. “If you don’t see the humanity, the easier it is to disrespect them.”
The three and a half day RESPECT Institute program Slack developed teaches individuals recovering from mental illness to articulate and share their stories throughout the community. Started in Missouri about 12 years ago, RESPECT Institute graduates have participated in over 750 events.
Slack, a former basketball player who suffered a breakdown after his first year playing basketball in college, spent almost 10 years in a mental health hospital before recovering from his mental illness, and now he’s spoken to over 400,000 people in nearly 30 different countries.
“I realized there was a therapeutic benefit to telling my story, and the more I told it, the more I was able to make sense of my story,” he said. “It was less mysterious.”
The RESPECT Institute of Georgia is funded by the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities and is a collaboration between the Georgia Mental Health Consumer Network and Mental Health America of Georgia. Currently in the middle of its inaugural year in Georgia, the RESPECT Institute goes to different mental health hospitals and agencies throughout the state and works with clients to, as Slack puts it, help them make sense of things that never made any sense before.
“We kind of help them articulate their life experiences with mental illness as well as what they had to do in order to recover,” said Alfred Brooks, the RESPECT Institute outreach coordinator. “Then, we take them throughout the community — to different colleges and universities and grade schools and legislative offices — to share their stories.”
The program operates on the premise that the more the general public hears honest, unflinching tales of recovery, the more informed and understanding they’ll be. According to Slack, that kind of candor goes much further than simply telling people they have nothing to fear.
“When you go out into the community and tell people not to worry about us, that we’re just like everyone else and we’re not any more dangerous, people actually get more suspicious,” Slack explained.
Even those in the mental health community sometimes need that reassurance, Brooks said, remembering a speaking engagement at a university with a behavioral health nursing program where the students were disillusioned because during their clinical hours they never saw people getting any better.
“After seeing our presentation, they were like, ‘Oh — I can really see doing this for a living. We see that recovery is possible,’” Brooks said. “A lot of people don’t know about mental illness and they believe that once you get sick, you’re just that way — it’s almost a death sentence, so what our program does is to help shed light that recovery does happen and that people can recover, even from the worst circumstances.”
That resiliency was evident at Friday’s graduation ceremony, where four of the dozen or so participants shared their stories.
“I finally learned how to love me unconditionally,” said Harvey Barksdale, Jr., who is now in school maintaining a 3.5 grade point average while seeking to become a substance abuse counselor. “I have learned how to feel emotions rather than to act out on them.”
Like most of those who spoke, Barksdale abused drugs and had to overcome a difficult childhood. In his presentation, he spoke of channeling the energy he had used so destructively toward a greater, positive purpose.
“I used the drugs whether it was raining, sleeting or snowing, so I began speaking out for mental illness with the same energy and drive, trying to change the stigma associated with mental illness and addiction,” he said.
On the first day of the program, participants told their stories to each other in a roundtable format. That night, they went home and wrote a formal version of their story, which they then presented to the class from behind a podium. For many, the extremely personal public speaking was the most challenging part of the program.
After constructive critiques, they revised their presentations and then gave them again the next day. Participants voted on the best stories, and those were given again as part of the graduation day program.
At East Central Regional Hospital, over 60 people gathered in the auditorium to experience the graduation, including Congressman John Barrow, who spoke of how important it was for people to hear from the perspective of those who are dealing with, or have dealt with, mental illness.
“To have the experts and the people who are actually responsible for saving people’s lives talk — that’s important,” he said. “But having the lives that are saved out there as examples to show what can be done, I think, is a far more vivid testimony than you can get from any number of PhDs.”
Barrow said that when it comes to illness, the differences between the mind and the body are negligible, though the world at large has been slow to recognize it.
“We don’t think twice about treating a broken bone and using the institution of insurance to pay for it,” he said. “But it’s awful hard for some people to treat things that we traditionally thought of as character flaws. We, though, know better than that.”
According to Brooks, a lot of that stigma comes from the media, which gives society a lot of its cues, both through the way it tells stories and from the stories it chooses to tell.
“A tragedy happens, and if it wasn’t a terrorist, we automatically think it must have been someone who was sick in the head,” he said. “It’s automatic. So it really takes the media to be brave enough to cover this angle of the story to really change how we think about things.”
The program has a two-year commitment from the state, and, according to Brooks, a former legislative aide whose uncle was bipolar, it has received a lot of positive feedback and seems to be well positioned as the mental health community moves to more of a recovery model.
And seeing recovery first hand, Brooks said, gives people a much better understanding of the strength and determination the participants use to get better.
“When you see the hope and the drive and the perseverance and the resilience of these people — it makes you take a look at your own life and say, you know what… I’ve got nothing to complain about,” he said. You Might Also Like: