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Fighting Mental Illness Part 2: Community TV

  • Richard Cohen:

    I don’t think people understand, well, not only bipolar disorder, but just mental illness in general.

  • Larry Fricks:

    What you believe about mental illness may be more disabling than the illness itself. OK? Most of society -- and I think the media plays a big part in this and how they portray us on TV and movies and, you know, it’s not very flattering. And it’s often frightening. I think people believe that our thought process is forever broken and therefore can you ever really be trusted. And I think that’s at the core of a lot of the stigma. And, what I will tell you, because, you know, I now go around the country and train people with diagnoses like schizophrenia and bipolar illness that have been in, you know, psychiatric hospitals. We train them to be peer specialists. And after they go through training, they’re certified. And they can actually bill Medicaid for helping another person focus on their strengths and learn to self-direct their recovery.

  • Richard:

    Let’s talk in detail about that. What you’re really talking about is people with mental illnesses being trained to work with patients on the theory that patients will listen and respond to people like them, with mental illnesses, as opposed to physicians.

  • Larry:

    Yeah, I mean it starts with AA. I mean, that’s the granddaddy of the mutual support -- grandmother or granddaddy, I want to be politically correct -- of mutual support. And AA works. You know, there’s research. It’s basically about human relationships. Science cannot possibly discern, or understand, or evaluate the power of hope in the life of somebody. Hope is the start of recovery and it’s just a phenomenon. And someone that’s walked in your shoes is, I think, better able to role model and send a message of hope than anyone else. And so, if you take that person and their lived experience of recovery and you give them training skills like combating negative self-talk and how to use effective listening and how to use your recovery story, you literally can connect in ways that traditional help professionals cannot connect. And so it’s really sort of sweeping the country right now. And it’s not as expensive. I’m not going off on psychiatrists here. I had a great psychiatrist. But in a bad economy, being able to train people that are not as expensive as psychiatrists and psychologists, and have evidence that it works.

  • Richard:

    I know that you’ve said that you finally got the right medical help. I know that you believe that you were on the right drugs. And we’ve had this conversation before, but isn’t there something inside of you ... didn’t you reach down and find something inside of you that helped you pull yourself out of this?

  • Larry:

    Well, I don’t want to sound like it was unique to me because I have ... I’ve probably been involved in training 3,000 peer specialists, and everybody has strengths. That’s what your book’s about, Richard: strong at the broken places. And the future is focusing on people’s strengths, not on their illness and disability. It’s really important to understand that what disables you is not only the symptoms. Yes, the symptoms can contribute to the disabling power of mental illness. It’s also the stigma/discrimination you experience from others. And it’s also how you internalize that and how you ... the story you come to believe about yourself. We all live out of a story of what we believe about ourselves and that’s powerful. And my story changed because I had a diagnosis of bipolar illness. So the first area for trust is you’ve got to be able to trust your own thought process again. In fact, when you go through a training we have called “Combating Negative Self-Talk,” we teach you about “catch it, check it, change it.” In fact, you get a little button that you can wear after you go through the one-hour module. And what that means is that your thoughts are not necessarily reality. In many cases they are not. They’re how you are perceiving yourself. And so if your thoughts are negative, you can learn skills to be aware and try to catch that thought before it spirals and creates another negative thought which leads to another negative thought. So that process, “catch it, check it, change it,” is one of the most powerful things we teach peer specialists. And in doing that, you learn to begin to trust your thought process better because you’re exercising cognitive skills. That’s a big term in psychiatry, it’s cognitive skills. But another thing is surrounding yourself with other people that have this experience and hearing the stories of recovery and exchanging those with each other and living in a culture of recovery. Those are all important for regaining regaining your trust. 

    Now, there’s the other side of that, and that’s the family members or co-workers and members of society who, because of the stigma and discrimination, come to believe that perhaps your thought process is broken and maybe you can’t be trusted. Let me go to some data in ... about stigma. Most Americans are OK being friends with somebody with a significant mental illness. They’re OK with that. But where they draw the line is 60% said they would not like to work with somebody and 70% said they don’t want them marrying into their family. The stigma is still very real. And so how do you start to change that? Well, one of the most powerful ways is in the workplace. As we get hired, and as we become, you know, people who are trusted employees, people see that we’re not who society, most of society, thinks that we are. And so we’re talking about an educational process here, but I think, you know, Mrs. Carter’s new book is coming out, um, Within Our Reach , and it’s about, you know, ending the mental health crisis in this country, and I’m going to tell you something interesting, Richard. Most people I work with now would say, “I don’t want you to take my mental illness away” -- the ones that I work with as peer specialists -- “because that experience was the most life-transforming experience that I’ve ever had, and on the other side of it, of working through it, of it almost killing me, came insight that has given me meaning and purpose in my life and a reason to get up every day.” I feel much more comfortable around people who are in recovery because they’re taking an inventory all the time. They’re trying to live in the now. They’re aware of what gives it meaning and purpose. And so I believe that, you know, living my life in the now and being aware of the power of goodness, and pursuing that. And I start each day trying to read something universally good, because your thoughts are powerful. And you can work your thoughts just like you work your biceps. And that’s what we teach these peer specialists, is you can have power over your thoughts. So it’s an openness to things that happen in your life that are not just coincidence. And you can’t control them, but you can certainly be aware of them when they happen. You’re just sort of ... you’re sort of amazed. 

    So, I want to not forget something here that in my recovery, and when I was utterly hopeless with depression -- and this is so important -- is I went down to a meeting of people in recovery from bipolar illness. It’s now called the Depression and Bipolar Support Line, and there’s chapters in all 50 states. Just Google DBSA and click on the state and there’s support groups. We have over a thousand support groups. I actually work for DBSA as vice president of peer services. I cannot tell you how important it was ... my family couldn’t do this for me ... but when I went down to Atlanta to a meeting of people with bipolar illness and depression and I saw that they had relationships, they had careers, they had meaningful lives, it busted through some of the hopelessness faster than, you know, someone who has not walked in my shoes. The roots are in AA. And the research shows that human connection and, you know, being vigilant about your life, and being vigilant about living your life a certain way and living in the now, you know, one day at a time, you know ... it’s a famous quote from AA.

  • Richard:

    Well thank you. I think you’re terrific.

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