Stories told and lessons learned: the power of patient reunions

by Anne W. Lupton on September 1, 2010 · 0 comments

in stigma

In just a few weeks, Menninger will host its second annual Patient Alumni Weekend, which is kind of like a class reunion, only without the alcohol.

Promoting this event got me thinking about last year’s inaugural event. Although I’m not a reunion going kind of girl (I’ve never been to my high school or college or grad school reunions), I went to help out and ended up sitting in on a few of the presentations, one of which was given by my fellow blogger Jon Allen, PhD, who writes a lot about attachment, mentalizing and POT (no, not that kind—the Plain-Old-Therapy kind).

At first I felt a bit funny about going to the presentations: I’m not a former patient, although some probably wish I were, and I was worried I might feel like I was invading the privacy of these former patients.

Well, I went anyway, and the truth is, it was the single most powerful, moving experience I’ve had professionally in the nearly three years I’ve worked at Menninger.

Change is possible

For one thing, getting to hear some of these folks talk about their lives after treatment was amazing. Yes, some still had their struggles—no surprise given the recurrent nature of severe mental illness—but many were clearly relishing newfound balance and hope.

One young woman talked about how dramatically her life had shifted in the previous year or so—something she said she never would have thought was possible before treatment. She moved halfway across the country, enrolled in a new school and found a job. She even used the word “happy” to describe herself. If you could have been there to hear how her spirit seemed to sing as she recounted the changes, you’d probably think what I thought at the time: AMAZING.

Stigma comes in different measures

For another thing, it was fascinating, albeit painful, to listen to former patients talk about how the stigma that still surrounds mental illness—maybe even especially for those who’ve been hospitalized—affected them.

Before I heard this discussion, I guess I was naïve enough to think stigma was an equal opportunity issue and that all mental disorders engendered the same level of stigma. Clearly I was wrong: Many of the former patients had struggled with multiple disorders and/or an addiction, and I learned that some were more comfortable sharing with family, friends and colleagues information about one, but not another, of their disorders.

For instance, one alumna said she preferred to keep to herself that she was treated for alcoholism, but that she was comfortable sharing with her co-workers, neighbors, family members, etc. that she had been treated for a mood disorder. But for another alumnus, it was just the opposite: he said he willingly shared that he was an alcoholic, not that he was treated for depression.

Listening to these former patients talk about this made me glad about three things:

  1. They had a safe place to talk about these things (and its corollary: Safe places, like safe houses, are not just necessary, they’re very valuable real estate).
  2. I had the chance to learn about stigma from their perspectives.
  3. I had my eyes opened to just how complex the issue of stigma is.

Which is to say that we must keep talking about stigma and mental illness. Because if it keeps folks like that young woman who’d sought treatment and turned her life around from sharing their stories of recovery and renewal, we’ll never be free of the spirit-crippling, mind-numbing shame that is stigma. And that would be a shame.

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