“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.