August 21st, 2010

Project gives hope, direction

Many times, the people on the front lines of mental health care, those in recovery or currently being treated, can feel lost in the maze. From finding appropriate care to making their way in the world, getting back to an ordinary life can be confusing and overwhelming.

Thanks to a project called “A Day In The Life: Breaking a Deafening Silence,” those voices are being heard and it’s a sound that can make a room full of people eerily silent or erupt in spontaneous applause. With a new project created by Connecticut’s North Central Regional Mental Health Board, the experiences of 80 mental health consumers are being described in a live presentation that has reached groups across the state and is expanding.

The project, funded by the Foundation for Mental Health and Yale University’s program for Recovery and Community Health, consisted of interviews of people with mental illness. The participants were asked to describe their lives and what they would change. They were asked about the role of mental health services and to describe what they would do with their own “mental health dollars” if they had the choice.

“We did 80 in-depth interviews,” says project director Judith Shaw, whose background in oral history and poetry were put to good use. “These people were so thrilled that someone wanted to hear their stories besides a therapist, psychiatrist, doctor, case worker. They just poured their hearts out.”

Another unique part of the project was that the study was conducted by a committee of people who are currently in recovery. With training on conducting interviews provided by Larry Davidson, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the Yale School of Medicine, the eight-person group then took the interviews and created a script with quotes selected from the feedback.

The presentation, offered to groups such as mental health facilities and state agencies, tells the story of profound loss and a need for guidance to get back to a self-sustaining life. Participants claimed that they would spend health care money on having people in recovery act as guides, helping them to pursue activities, housing, friendships and to rebuild their relationships with their families.

“Our goal is to reach people who are out there suffering,” she says. “This is a link to get more funding for health care, more publicity. The project is exciting but we want to let them know that they are not alone in the world.”

Since the first public presentation in April, the group has appeared in a dozen more locations. The turnout has been so large in some places, says Shaw that they have had to move to larger arenas.

“We were going to hold the presentation in the library at Connecticut Valley Hospital,” says Shaw, “but when we got there, they told us that they had to move the room – more than 90 people wanted to come, including staff. The room was packed.”

The turnout and the reaction were both amazing.

“Each time one of us would introduce ourselves, we say, ‘Hi, my name is Judith Shaw and besides being a person in recovery, I am a mom of two and my hobbies and interests are…’”

“Every time we did this the whole audience started to cheer. It was so mind-boggling and exciting. They raised the roof. They gave us a standing ovation, hugs, feedback. They told us that we gave them hope and love.”

For Shaw, the project is all about giving others hope and direction. She knows how it feels to be lost. At one point in her life, she says, doctors had told her she would never work again.

“I had mental illness since I was 12 that was diagnosed when I was 19,” she says. “It’s amazing that I went into a state hospital at age 19,” especially since today, at age 64, she is working as director of the project, along with volunteering on several state boards and committees.

“In 1992, I went on disability and all the doctors said, ‘you’ll never work again.’ But with this work I’ve taken off like wildfire.”

Future goals for the project include bringing it to other hospitals and groups who are not directly associated with mental health care. The group has also produced a DVD of the presentation that can be ordered. For more information, contact Shaw at 860-667-6388, Ext. 14.

By Catherine Robertson Souter

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