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Kelly Wesselman

I recently took a big step forward in my personal journey of recovery by participating in a mental health conference, “Alternatives: Standing Together, Celebrating Our Gifts, Raising Our Voices,” in Washington, D.C.

I came to this conference with some baggage. For the past 20 years, I had deflated myself into a diagnosis and was no longer an active participant in my own recovery. Fortunately, before I got to the conference I had read a quote from Henri Nouwen, a Dutch theologian: “When our wounds cease to be a source of shame and become a source of healing, we have become wounded warriors.” Using personal experience in the service of others is what recovery is all about.

The first workshop I attended was “Power, Privilege and Liberation in Recovery.” Stephanie Barnett Jamison, director of staff development and organizational culture for Turning Points for Children, gave us a crash course on the history of the recovery movement.

The concept of recovery originated with consumers, not the traditional mental health system. Peer support isn’t perfect. Around 2000-2001, peer support was professionalized to fit traditional mental health care. Jamison called for a return to its roots, what she called “Recovery 2.0.”

Jamison cited several alarming facts. According to a World Health Organization information sheet, people with severe mental illness are 85% more likely to die early — a loss of 10-25 years — compared to the general population. Jamison blames early deaths on preventable diseases such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes, as well as non-preventable diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, respiratory disease and accidents.

Another troubling statistic was a study by the Center for Disease Control that found the suicide rate has increased 33% from 1999 to 2017. Correlational studies do not investigate cause and effect because of liability and ethical concerns. However, Jamison said many survivors have described experiencing long-lasting trauma as a result of hospitalization.

The last workshop I attended was “Human Rights as Part of Our Personal Journey.” Svava Arnardottir, a therapist from Reykjavik, Iceland, had a hands-on presentation in which we shared our experiences and came up with concrete goals to improve mental health care in our communities. The main takeaway for me was realizing that people with mental illness can make a difference, even when we are struggling.

Arnardottir said people in her tiny country threw the medical model “out the window” and developed a recovery movement based not only on self-help and individual improvement, but also on trying to make positive changes in mental health care and standing up for human rights.

In contrast to Iceland’s progressive ideas, Cheolung Je, a participant from Seoul, South Korea, said his country is just now realizing the importance of peer support services. Je runs a research center that advocates for human rights of people with mental disabilities in Korea. He said South Korea’s mental health system has serious problems. For example, young people can be hospitalized simply for disagreeing with their parents. In terms of progress, though, Je said, “I think global level collaboration is very helpful to reform and improve traditional mental health policy and practices in many countries.”

How do we make changes to improve mental health services in southwest Georgia? Ordinary people like you and me need to stand up for what is right and insist on a system of care that does nothing about us without us. Criticism of the mental health system is good and necessary. Our local resources — the local mental health system, the hospital and private providers — are overburdened and ineffective to meet the demands of mental health care in southwest Georgia. This is a blanket statement that may seem harsh, but after 24 years in Albany, I can honestly stand behind it. A speaker at Alternatives gave me the courage to critique our services when she said, “They’re (mental health providers) big people and they can handle it.”

Closer to home we can make a difference and raise our voices this August at Georgia Mental Health Consumer Network’s 28th Annual Summer Conference on St. Simon’s Island. Call GMCN at (800) 297-6146 for information. Each year the highlight of the conference is voting on our top five priorities for the upcoming year. It’s a great opportunity for hope, fellowship and fun.

Kelly Wesselman is the former manager of Artesian Activity Center, a peer support center. She lives with her husband, Tim, in Albany.

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