Here is a new proposal from Italy: We want to start an international initiative to promote the writing of recovery stories in every country, with the ultimate goal of sharing at an international level the most compelling ones from each country. Our proposal is born from an awareness that recovery stories are necessary today in order to give back to mental sufferance its meaning and transparency, to fight the biographical opacity of biological theories (the broken brain) and to guarantee decisional power to those who are offered (or imposed) mono-dimensional or dehumanizing treatments.
For me, personally, my interest in the writing of such stories came about from my reading just such a story more than a decade. The book, The Day the Voices Stopped. A Memoir of Madness and Hope, was written by Ken Steele. He was a person who regained a full life and clarity of mind after suffering for 30 years from hallucinations that persecuted him and often made him suicidal. He dedicated the last years of his life to protecting the civil and political rights of people who are said to be “mentally ill.” One of the campaigns that he promoted was named “I vote, I count,” aimed at facilitating access to voting for those who spent most of their lives inside psychiatric institutions.
Ken Steele’s book was so warm and convincing, and so clearly showed that recovery was possible (if the person was put in the condition of sharing transparent proposals for shared decision making), that it was an easy choice for me to translate it into Italian and look for a publisher willing to print it. In September 2005 the Italian edition of the book was ready. The first public launch took place in Biella, and it was there that the idea of promoting a national event that would encourage our «Italian Ken Steeles» to tell their “recovery stories” was conceived. It took about two years for this idea to become a well-defined project: the national Literary Contest “Storie di Guarigione.” Its first edition ended in Autumn 2008, with an award ceremony for the 12 winners (among 600 participants).
As we’d partly anticipated, the Literary Contest “Storie di Guarigione” was supported by a specific network: the health and social agencies co-ordinated by the Department of Mental Health Care of Biella. Under the direction of Dr. Emanuele Lomonaco, this Department promoted the creation of a “round table” comprising all the stakeholders locally involved in mental health projects. This round table chose the name of “The Community That Heals” to express, in a direct manner, that it is the responsibility of the community to provide the resources required for exiting mental sufferance and the role of the “sick person.”
Beyond the specific features of the local community network that undertook this initiative, the Literary Contest represented an attempt to clearly translate two priorities:
- The centrality of the point of view of the patient, which users’ movements have been claiming at an international level since many years and which, in Italy, collides—silently—with the prevailing tradition of “democratic paternalism.” Due to the historical reach of the decision by psychiatry to close Italy’s mental hospitals, this Italian version of paternalism can be described in this way: “There is no need to ask you, the patient, what is best for you. Since I, the psychiatrist, supported the shutting of the hospitals and that reform, I am a “democratic professional, and thus I already known what is best for you and can decide on my own!”
- The recovery of the comprehensibility of the psychotic experience, an idea that has gradually been lost in Italy, since the early ’90s. It has been squashed, on the one side, by the biological literature on mental sufferance, which has been uncritically embodied by the training schools at universities and, on the other side, by the prevailing attention toward the different organizational strategies for outpatient care. In both training contexts (university and mental health departments), the phenomenological- and psychodynamic-culture on which the patient relationship rested (during the early years following the reform) has been systematically weakened and marginalized.
The subject of the “comprehensibility of the psychotic experience” (the same as for the depressive- and bipolar-experience) is a crucial premise for both the reading and drafting of autobiographical accounts. Many survivors of the psychotic experience define recovery as the capacity of taking back the reins of their existence into their own hands. Some aspects, such as the disappearance of symptoms, quitting meds for good, and the richness of the person’s social network, are just details when compared with the dimensions of ownership of self-consciousness and personal decision-making. Autobiographical accounts usually recognize the positive contributions provided by some mental health workers that offered them real interpersonal relations, but their role always appears as secondary in relation to the personal capacity of turning the page over, after having re-read with pain, curiosity and carefully the negative experiences of the previous pages (in his or her life.)
Not wanting to limit the forms of expression of those who have had “lived experience,” the organizers of the first and second edition of the Literary Contest have invited three types of written works: autobiographies, stories and poetry. All of the coordinating staff (including the webmaster) are “experts by experience.” The submitted writings are first selected by a Jury of Readers (composed of health workers and social workers, as well as people from civilian society, including some survivors) and, after that, reassessed by a Final Jury—in the past, its Honorary Presidents were Alda Merini and Michelangelo Pistoletto. This Jury selected the writings they deemed to be the best. All the winners were invited to Biella for the award ceremony, at the expenses of the Organizing Committee, and received a cash-prize.
The second edition of this literary contests started one year ago: more than 300 participants sent their writings by the end of March, 2014 and on November 28th, 2014, the award ceremony will be held in Biella. All relevant information about this second edition is availableat this website: www.storiediguarigione.net.
We are hoping that others will seek to develop similar initiatives in their countries. Anyone who is interested in doing so can get in touch with us. (Giuseppe Tibaldi [email protected] and Tristano Ajmone, [email protected].) This would be a shared project, and our plan would be to apply for national and international funding. And our ultimate goal would be to publish an anthology of recovery stories from around the world.