Our Collective Stories Have Power

Leah Harris
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“Storytelling in general is a communal act. Throughout human history, people would gather around, whether by the fire or at a tavern, and tell stories. One person would chime in, then another, maybe someone would repeat a story they heard already but with a different spin. It’s a collective process. “

            • Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Our stories are cut of many different fabrics; but when put together, they are a patchwork quilt of great strength and comfort. How many of us, when first emerging out of a “mental patient” identity and beginning to embrace the possibility of a different kind of life, were inspired by a survivor’s story? How many of us were then moved to tell our story, after someone else had the courage to share theirs? How many of us drew courage to be advocates and activists and artists and parents, to be “out” about our madness and extreme states – because someone else did it first?

Everyone knows that stories are powerful. Now is the time to harness our individual stories, our collective stories, to counter the negative and hateful stories painted about us in the media. We need to push back with stories of our own. Stories of oppression, of discovering a way out of the hell with luck and help, and forging a life so much bigger than the “system” ever told us was possible. Stories that give people hope. Stories that give people the courage and permission to dream big and refuse to be defined solely by a diagnosis.

Daniel B. Fisher shared the following story at the Biden Commission hearing a few weeks ago – which apparently influenced Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Kathleen Sebelius, and Pam Hyde of SAMHSA – about the importance of hope:  “I recounted giving a talk in Oregon where a young boy, aged 13, was squirming in his seat in the audience. At lunch I asked his mother if he got anything from my talk. She said “you may have saved his life, he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 10, and was told he would never recover. He had been suicidal ever since, until he heard you say that people can recover from even the most severe conditions.”

SAMHSA is asking us to gather up our stories and to use them in the service of change and raising awareness. The agency wants to highlight a number of recovery stories to kick off a ‘National Dialogue’ about Recovery and Hope.  The National Coalition for Mental Health Recovery (NCMHR) is collaborating with SAMHSA/HHS in this National Dialogue.  There will be town hall meetings in a number of cities across the US.  Some may piggyback on existing statewide consumer/survivor conferences. The Administration wants to outreach to media, video game manufacturers, campuses, high schools, and others to spread stories of hope and mental health recovery.

On short notice, we will be filming as many people as possible telling their stories of how they built a life of meaning and purpose out of trauma and struggle; what supports and services helped; what services hurt; and what they see as promising policy directions for building a more compassionate society and creating real, hopeful alternatives to conventional mental health services.  We hope to be able to share these on YouTube soon. More updates will be posted as this initiative unfolds.

9 COMMENTS

  1. Yes, Leah, this is so very important! Our stories are vital to revolutionary change in the system. There are thousands of moving stories, each different, and each essential to be told. Storytelling is both healing for the teller and educational for the listener. The general public has become more ignorant than ever about the barbaric “treatments” that are being thrust upon the many,many locked within the system. The time is long overdue to spread our stories loud and clear and far and wide.

  2. ”I recounted giving a talk in Oregon where a young boy, aged 13, was squirming in his seat in the audience. At lunch I asked his mother if he got anything from my talk. She said “you may have saved his life, he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 10, and was told he would never recover. He had been suicidal ever since, until he heard you say that people can recover from even the most severe conditions.”

    No thirteen year old has bipolar disorder. You can’t recover from a fictitious condition. I don’t understand why you didn’t say this. This boy is being medically abused and someone needs to advocate for him and tell him there is nothing wrong with him.

    • This is such a moving story, dragonfly. Sometimes all it takes is hearing one story to bring hope and a completely different understanding of the labels which are so wrongly given to people. The stories also travel from person to person. Change is slow and steady.

      Happy Valentine’s Day to all!

    • I can really relate…my 14 year old niece was supposedly diagnosed with ADHD/Bipolar disorder when she was around the age of 7 or 8 which I NEVER bought into. She has been on numerous drugs ever since, most of them causing terrible side effects, including hallucinations, weight gain(over 40lbs), bad acne(which extremely affected her self-esteem) along with other problems. I am very concerned about her and I would love to try to get her off these drugs and try a more natural approach, but I don’t know what authority, if any, I have. Does anyone know what actions I can take to try to help her get off these dangerous drugs? I know you have to be very careful when coming off these drugs.

  3. Yes dragonfly, yes!

    The jarring reference of the boy in Oregon ruins the entire theme of “Our Collective Stories Have Power”. It brings into focus what is really going on: wholesale medical deceit and abuse.

    Who is advocating for that boy to be something other than a lifelong consumer of psychopharmaceuticals? Not many. Not even here at MIA.

  4. It’s fine to say we should tell our stories. Those who know my work in the movement know I have a very dramatic story to tell.

    But telling our stories of oppression and suffering to the very same people, those in charge of the mental “health” system such as SAMHSA, who have caused this suffering, is just harmless venting.

    Before the virtual takeover of our movement by the system, we used to have a great deal of access to the mass media. Our leaders often would appear on national television and in articles in national newspapers and magazines. That was when it made sense to tell our stories, because by educating the general public, we had a chance to influence change.

    We lost that access to the general public when we stopped being a movement for human rights, and became just a branch of the mental “health” system.

    It is ridiculous to think that by telling our stories of suffering to SAMHSA, they will see the error of their ways. We won’t reclaim our human rights until we fight for them. As Frederick Douglass once said, “Power concedes nothing without a struggle. It never has and it never will.”

    This article is very cynical.

    • I agree with you Ted, that it’s a battle and a struggle. Like being a resistance fighter. I got involved back in 2005 by putting my story on to a Scottish recovery website. It was a story of survival but didn’t do anything to challenge the system’s power. It felt like I’d lost my story, given it up.

      And so I spoke out louder, was excluded and badmouthed. Nearly gave up then got back in the ring, realising that this was the name of the game. And now I try to enjoy it some of the time or even much of the time, if I possibly can. It’s tough because my bairns (grown up sons) are still going in and out of the psychiatric system. So I’m fighting tooth and nail. Just as well I was always a fighter or defender, depending on how you look at it.