The Can Collector’s Club: Clarifying Where Mental Health Begins


In 1980, my father started the Can Collector’s Club (CCC).  I was 2 years old.  As the story goes, it was my mother’s brainchild, but dad quickly took ahold of the idea with his entrepreneurial spirit.  Some people thought he had lost his mind.  Some still do.  But the purpose of the CCC was simple.  Convince family and friends to turn aluminum cans into him so that he could use the money from recycling to support our college fund.  And clean up the environment.

Quickly, the CCC turned into an annual contest, with those collecting the most cans awarded prizes at a fiscal (can) year-end party that featured balloon tosses, a self-indulgent speech by the director himself (often in costume), and a cast of characters set on taking irreverence to a whole new level.  As the years passed with semi-annual newsletters, and the number of cans grew, so did the stories, enough so that one day, Jim Schroeder (Sr.), ended up on the front page of (Original News story from WTVW Evansville, Ind., November 7, 2008).

Midst the eccentricities and obsessiveness at times, though, my father remained ever conscious of his goals.  Even his arguments grew more coherent as the dollars amassed and the number of families involved grew.  And ever conscientious of his children’s needs and the community of people that rallied around this cause, he began to look at other ways to have a positive effect on those who needed it most.

So it is when it comes to mental health.  As DSM-5 tops out at a whopping 947 pages, and the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) promises millions of dollars in search of biological causes for mental conditions, something seems lost in trying to really understand where mental health really begins.  Mental health is not the absence of impairing, abnormal, or distressing symptoms any more than summer is the absence of ice, snow, and cold.  Summer is a period of great growth just as we humans are beings of tremendous possibility.  But in order to be mentally healthy, three things must be present:  consciousness, coherence, and conscientiousness.  By nature, these mind states are active processes and apply to both our internal experiences and our external behaviors.

Consciousness is not just a dynamic awareness of our thoughts and feelings, but it is an acute understanding and concern of our circumstances, now and at other times.  Put more simply, it is a person’s ability to take in their situation fully in order to best determine their next course of action.  Coherence is the state of being logical, consistent, and congruent with what exists around us.  It does not disregard our emotional state, but it mandates that the arguments we make be based on reasonable facts, ideas, and/or beliefs.  Conscientiousness signifies that what we do is right and just, and that our actions are principled.  It serves as our link to others, in that we consider how they are affected by our behaviors.

For arguments sake, take any diagnosed mental condition, and you will find that each of these three critical factors are at play.  When we are depressed, we become less conscious to the world around us, our beliefs become irrational, and self-absorption takes hold.  When we cannot concentrate, we tend to only focus on loosely connected details, our thoughts become disjointed and confusing, and we seek to satisfy the need that lies right in front of us.

But this article is not about pathology.  It is about health.  It is why exercise works so well to improve mental health.  When you are physically fit, your mind becomes more conscious to what is going on.  With this, comes an opportunity to step outside your closed box and consider what you and others may see and need.  It is why cognitive-behavioral therapy works.  It seeks to take irrational beliefs and put them into a clearer, more realistic context.  The belief that “Everyone hates me” is no more coherent than the grandiose idea that “Everyone loves me.”  It is why regular volunteering has long been known to have lasting positive psychological effects on the volunteer.  We become conscientious regarding the fact that we are not the only one with a tough life.

So before we get so entangled in mental dysfunction, maybe we need to spend some more time considering what happens when we really do function.  In the process, we may find that stigma reduces, conversations become more productive, and we all begin to realize that your mind and my mind need to focus on developing the same critical properties.  And if anything or anyone tries to convince you that a mobile device or a pill can take the place of these things, be very, very cautious.  Nothing can take their place, and sometimes, that which promises to relieve you can leave you more scattered and disjointed than before.

By the way, for those who are curious, the CCC is in its 34th year running.  This past year, a record number of families (60) participated.  Now that all of my siblings have graduated college, 100% of the proceeds (including that from my father’s penny and nickel clubs) go to a mission in Haiti, where my father can’t wait to go every year to see the beautiful, shining faces of those kids he loves.  His vision, and that of my mother’s, remains just as conscious, coherent, and conscientious as ever.  And now, a new generation has gotten into the mix, as my kids and their cousins scramble over wooded banks and scour sidewalks for cans amid the questioning gazes of onlookers, who can only wonder just what possesses those kids to do such a thing.


  1. “Consciousness…is a person’s ability to take in their situation fully in order to best determine their next course of action. Coherence is the state of being logical, consistent, and congruent with what exists around us. It does not disregard our emotional state, but it mandates that the arguments we make be based on reasonable facts, ideas, and/or beliefs.”

    With all due respect, James, I feel this explanation is a bit askew, given that reality is multi-dimension, rather than linear. “What exists around us” is up to anyone to determine, based on what they perceive, which, in turn, is based on a variety of factors that come together at that point in time. It’s all so highly individualized, aka Rashomon.

    “While it does not disregard our emotional state” makes our emotions sound secondary to our thoughts, and I’d argue that emotions are really primary. Naturally, where we focus our thoughts determine what we feel, and we can choose where to focus. So by choosing wisely and deliberately, we can make ourselves feel good, or at least better than terrible.

    Feelings make up our inner guidance, and they are what really lead us to the next step, not cognition. Going by ‘brain consciousness’ is what has led us down such a bleak path, as it leaves out the most vital information: “How do you feel at present, and what steps would you take to feel better?” would, to my mind, be the universal question to ask for the purpose of healing.
    What may appear logical and consistent to one person can feel illogical and inconsistent to another. I believe this is universal. Moreover, an observer is more likely to interpret someone through their own filter—we all have them—which imposes onto the observed a different framework of reality than their own.

    I think this is one of the grave errors that psychotherapists commit chronically, which is terribly unfair and demeaning to the client, not to mention confusing as hell to one’s mind. These criteria simply lead to misunderstandings and worse yet, unfounded judgments. Just because a person’s behavior, beliefs or ideas don’t make sense to the observer does not necessarily mean that the observed is nonsensical or irrational.

    Beliefs are beliefs, and we create our reality from beliefs, which manifest as we each take our individual journeys through life. I really don’t think there is such a thing as “an unreasonable belief,” since we all have the right to choose what it is we believe. We really do have free will, here—it is our creativity in action–and often, the clash is due to stringent cultural norms that offer no permission for individuality or diversity. That is where stigma comes from—a society imposing its belief norms on another, and demeaning, labeling, or marginalizing them when their belief is not consistent with the norm.

    “It is why cognitive-behavioral therapy works. It seeks to take irrational beliefs and put them into a clearer, more realistic context.”

    Gotta disagree with you, here. CBT programs a person’s mind to think the way society thinks, advocating group think, as per cultural norms. I think it’s highly manipulative, and not in a good way. The norm is not healthy, I think we all agree about that by now, at least most of us do. So isn’t it time to open our hearts and minds to new ways of thinking?

    Who’s to say what is irrational or not? A therapist? I’ve known plenty of therapists that seemed irrational to me. Then again, going by my own argument, here, who am I to say?

    In any event, I would never allow myself to internalize another’s judgment of my beliefs. That’s my reality, and I enjoy it thoroughly. It also evolves over time, based on what I experience in life as I go along.

    It was only when I allowed therapists to confuse me by trying to convince me that my thoughts are off, my beliefs are irrational, and my feelings are not valid that I became gravely ill. I call it ‘therapy brain,’ and I had a helluva time healing that.

    Fortunately, I discovered that neurons can be re-directed to a comfortable flow, in synch with who I am, allowing me to become aligned with my sense of Self. Brought ease and clarity into my thinking, and it relaxed my heart and clarified my feelings a great deal, allowing me to take my inner guidance while creating and living my life to my heart’s content.

    Most importantly, I learned to discern my voice from the external judgment and opinions of others, who may not be aligned with my beliefs, which is fine. Many are, and those are the ones to whom I gravitate for coherency and community support.

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    • Hi Alex,

      Always appreciate the observations and insights. A few further reflections. One, I completely agree that our emotions are critical to both our identity and the choices we make, and that understanding and embracing them is one of the biggest keys to finding ourselves in places that we feel called to be (see “What Our Emotions Are Trying to Tell Us” from my personal column to get my further ideas on the matter). However, where emotions can cause us to go awry is when they take us away from our self-professed goals. Last week, I had an adolescent in my office who acknowledged that his fear and disdain about issues at school was leading him not only to avoid school completely, but have a future life that “sucks”. But in his anger, he stated that he didn’t care, and just wanted us to allow him to go on this path. This became a great example of how the 3 C’s were really impacting his overall mental health. As you astutely noted, we must create our own reality (although truths do clearly exist in this world), but when our state of mind is taking us away from our self-professed goals, we must reconsider.

      In regards to your thoughts about CBT, I would agree that there are certain aspects that I don’t like, including the idea that we can (or should) have control over all of our feelings (especially anxiety), which obviously are part of being human. This is where ACT (Acceptance-Commitment Therapy) does much better. But I don’t think we should throw out much of what CBT has to offer. We all have thoughts that are irrational at times (whether on our or other’s apprisal), but the key is in what way they guide our actions. Again, if they guide our actions against our goals/callings and/or the rights of other people, then we must challenge them. The reality is that we all use CBT everyday in our lives, constantly assessing our thoughts and feelings, and determining how grounded and rational they are. Simply because it has been used as a therapeutic modality (and sometimes in a control, inept way), then, should not necessary make it an evil.

      Finally, I really appreciated your last thought:

      “Most importantly, I learned to discern my voice from the external judgment and opinions of others, who may not be aligned with my beliefs, which is fine. Many are, and those are the ones to whom I gravitate for coherency and community support.”

      Ultimately, we must discern for ourselves about where we go, and never trust anyone fully to do this, whether a psychologist or even a parent. But, I do think there is a trap in sometimes only seeking out support and wisdom from those that align with our beliefs. Although it may be comfortable to our psyche, and certainly we do not want to surround ourselves with detractors, it may also prevent us from the challenges needed to improve ourselves. In my own life, it is no secret that faith is important to me – but over the last few years, I have felt compelled to seek out authors, atheistic or otherwise, that challenge my conventional way of thinking and make me really consider all points of view. I figure that not only will this give me insights I would likely have not had, but it will also put my beliefs to the ultimate test.

      By the way, “discerning your own voice” was actually one of the main points of my story about my father. So many people as I said (over the years) have thought that his ideas are irrational and really “out there”. But through his conscious actions and persistence, I think that many (as I am sure people have experienced in knowing you) are coming to understand him more clearly.

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      • Thanks for your thoughtful response, James.

        A few points I’d like to express in response–

        1. If our emotions are taking us away from our goals, then I would question whether or not our goals are guiding us in the right direction for ourselves. We internalize a lot of ‘shoulds’ and ‘if only’s’ without realizing that we are operating from these internalized judgments and speculations, rather than our heart’s true desires.

        I’ve heard that one way to make God laugh is to make plans. What I’ve learned, believe, and experience daily is that our emotions are indicators of our spirit vibration. If the vibration is dense and constricting, it produces a bad feeling, and this is an indication of a split between our inner being (soul, spirit) and our choices. That already is leading us down the path of mental distress and grief.

        While I feel it’s sound to have an intention or goal, I feel it’s MOST sound to be flexible, according to what our emotions are expressing to us along the way. I would most definitely put emotions along the journey of manifesting our goals (akin to the proverbial yellow brick road), over the need to manifest the original goal, unwaveringly. That would indicate attachment, which can render us powerless, or at the very least, create a lot of unnecessary effort and undue emotional suffering.

        If we let things morph without attaching or controlling, then we are creating with ease, and it can be joyous. This joy is important, because it becomes the fuel for the manifestation. We do want to manifest that which brings us joy, don’t we? Regardless of what it is, in the end, we desire joy.

        Certainly our processes of manifestation are not without challenges, but these challenges are more welcome because if we’re following our inner guidance (emotions), then we tend to be a bit more clairvoyant and the universe will align with us in support to overcome the challenge, and we learn and create so much simply from facing these hurdles in all our authenticity. This is how heal while refining our creative processes, and feel better and lighter as we get older, as opposed to more burdened and cynical. I firmly believe this, and I experience it all the time. I believe that life is set up this way, works every time.

        2. When I talk about seeking support from a community with beliefs similar to mine, I’m discerning between those with beliefs that include judgment and invalidation for my process from those that understand permission and non-judgment. My belief is that there is no right or wrong way of doing things, and I validate any process that a client is choosing because it is dictated solely by their spirit. I am in no way qualified to interfere with that, nor would I want to.

        Of course, I’m also there to help out when they are experiencing double-binding paradoxes and doubt, but I neither dictate nor manipulate to try to get them to see things as I do. I simply try to get them to make the connection between their thoughts/beliefs and how they are feeling. “How does that thought make you feel?” is a much more sound, neutral, and respectful question than, “Is that belief rational?” imo.

        I enjoy diverse beliefs and perspectives, as this is what creates rich and beautiful diversity–the gestalt of our collective spirits. But I do tend to stay away from low permission people and environments, unless they are my clients looking to expand their awareness.

        3. The only truths of which I’m aware are fixed in our universe is:
        a. Like attracts like
        b. We allow what we experience
        c. We are all creators of our reality

        This is Law of Attraction, which is the basis of many diverse spiritual teachings. It is radical self-responsibility, far and away from victim mentality and powerlessness. It is the essence of our power over our lives, by knowing spirit vibration, through honoring our emotions at all times.

        All else that we call ‘reality’ is transient, based on the collective vibration. If we vibrate at ‘fear,’ then we create fearful experiences to match our feeling and focus of thought. If we vibrate at rage, then we create things that will support our rage. If we vibrate at unconditional love, then that will be the world we create.

        I believe we are all looking to manifest an unconditionally loving world, so one way or another, our spirits are guiding us to know this. That’s a challenge in the world we live in, but I do feel the universe is helping us out here. Although for some, it is truly a rude awakening, and will shake the foundation of what we’ve accepted as reality. The world is changing quickly because of all this, and it’s needed to.

        When we connect to our spirit voices–through our emotional journey–we find our way, and this is why I support emotional journeying over intellectual pursuits. The intellect deceives us all the time, falling for illusions as though they are real, because we have come to create realities that keep us in denial of our neuroses. It’s why I eschew academia. That ivory tower reality is about as illusory as it gets, and it’s what has driven the world to the brink of disaster. We’ve based so much on what is, in reality, ACADEMIC. Multiple holograms there.

        Whereas our emotions guide us with authenticity and truth by pointing us in the direction of what feels better, which leads to hope, clarity, and eventually bliss and love. It is self-loving to look for what feels better, as opposed to seeking out that which will make us seem consistent and coherent to others. What do I care about how others perceive me? I care exclusively about how I feel. Period. That way, I get my own insights, and I don’t have to rely on what others think. I’ve read plenty of books over the years and in my studies, but it is MY information which I value most highly, because it is relevant to MY process, not to that of some author outside of myself. That only teaches me about their process, which can be interesting, but it is not my process that I learn about from books written by others.

        I don’t have to consciously choose with whom I commune. Law of Attraction takes care of that. The universe is always picking up and responding to our frequency of vibration, always in motion around this. I am only responsible for the signal I put out in the collective, so I try to keep it high and truthful, aligned with heart and integrity. I do a lot of meditation and deliberate focus to achieve clarity of thought and feeling. I also have a group of healers and teachers with whom I work, so we do this on a communal level, which is incredibly powerful.

        Those that vibrate at a different frequency will not pick up my signal, and vice versa, so we will not be in each others vicinity. We are vibrational beings, and emit and receive signals like a radio antenna. We have a variety of signals in the world, the way a radio has a variety of stations. That which is on AM is not the same frequency as that which is on FM. Same goes for the specific stations on each band.

        These are the teachings of the new paradigm of reality, healing, and conscious manifestation, and I believe they are totally sound and spot on. My life transformed in every respect when I applied all of this, as has that of many others. It is an incredible relief, to say the least, to evolve from density to light, as we call it.

        If we want a peaceful and harmonious world, then it is necessary to create inner peace and harmony. Indeed, we want diversity, that is our God-given rainbow. But our emotions tell us whether or not we’re on track with this, as we take the journey to create what it is we most desire. Happens one person at a time, and then we can work as a very powerful creative collective, as we each awaken to our limitlessness, which we can only do by taking our emotional journey.

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  2. Bravo, Alex !
    You should have your own blog here at MIA your insights are especially clear and I and my experience agree with you .

    James ,
    Sounds like you’ve had a great family life . You are correct about the importance of exercise.

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  3. I have often felt like I was drowning in my diagnosis. It’s hard to feel comfortable in groups without the sinking suspicion that they know you don’t belong. A few years ago, I really didn’t think I was going to live through that fall… My husband brought home a box turtle to amuse me and show the cats. It was meant to be a fifteen minute visit, but having no experience with reptiles, I soon discovered he was a very sick creature. Half starved, eyes swollen shut, larvae in his skin, a respiratory infection, and the people who had last held him hostage had laquered his shell in nailpolish. (which would have allowed it to be absorbed into his bloodstream.) I called every group I knew, and no one would take him, but I also knew he would die if I set him free. We survived that fall together, and what I realized (and the reason for my comment) that if a turtle, an animal given to OCD’s, panic attacks, stress, anxiety , and one of the few animals that will commit suicide in the wild, could survive to be as ancient as they are, maybe I could too. I now take in turtle rescues, and this winter has been the best I’ve had in fifteen years. The funny thing about volunteer work and depression is that it takes the focus off the emotions that you are drowning in and gives you purpose. There were days when I slept with the turtle in my bed, and I only could continue to get out of bed by reminding myself that lights had to be turned on, food put out, skin treated… etc My mother is fond of telling me that I have always been difficult to love, but the turtles allowed me to feel like I was actively making a difference with my life while feeling loved without judgment. It’s been the best treatment I have found for my disorder so far.

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    • I just love this story. It speaks to the transformative power of putting another ahead of our own, whether it be a person or a turtle. Thank you so much for sharing.

      P.S. I probably loved it even more because as a kid, we would find box turtles in the woods, create a home for them during the summer, and then release them when it started to get cold only likely to find them the next summer. Probably not recommended by animal advocates, but we certainly got to know them well and it became one more experience that really turned me into an environmentalist at heart.

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