From Different and Discredited to Valued and Hopeful

by Gloria Dickerson
July 03, 2013

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Sitting in my living room, sipping on a cup of “just right” coffee and glued to the television, I begin my morning’s laughing until it hurts. On this day, Steve Harvey ends his segment with an even more hilarious joke. And, I think to myself, “what a great start to the day!”

Excited for more hilarity, I was surprised when the program sudden shifts in tone from happiness to somberness. Noah, a 12 year-old, round-faced, handsome boy poised beyond his years is introduced. He quietly talks about what it is like to be deemed different and discredited—a target of bullying: “I was thinking of committing suicide after the kids kept bullying me. They called me ugly… I didn’t think anybody cared. I was going to kill myself on my 13th birthday. I thought to myself who ever said, ‘Words don’t hurt?’”

Steve asked Noah’s mother, “How is it to hear this from your son?” The sadness in her voice was as striking as her words, “I had no idea what he was going through. I found out when I received a call from one of his friend’s mother. This past weekend he had posted on his Instagram account that he was planning to commit suicide on his birthday. He also posted images of his arm where he has been cutting himself for the past two months. My heart sank. I knew I had to do something. We immediately took him to the hospital.”

His mother continued, “While waiting in the ER, I took to Facebook. Noah has been dealing with bullying for the past year. He has been feeling alone and left out, ostracized from old friends and a misfit among new kids. Noah is getting treatment, but he needs people to rally. Which is why I've created the website Letters for Noah and a Facebook Page.”

Noah continued, “Thousands of people I didn’t even know sent me cards and e-mails telling me to hang in there. I didn’t know people cared.” When he was asked why he wanted to tell his story, he said, “I wanted other people to know that they are not alone. Other people will help you!” 

Noah has turned his experience of victimization into one of empowerment. Strangers reached out to him with loving words. Their support helped Noah feel reconnected. Noah’s story reminds us of the power of receiving kind words. The support Noah received could be defined as a “holding environment”—a community of individuals who spoke with compassion and hope for his recovery that became nurturers who soothed his pain. Noah actively accepted this show of love and is now demonstrating how to use his story to help others. Stories can be a gift that keeps on giving by connecting us out of our isolation. Words of support by strangers created a loving community, a container of love that held and lessened this young boy’s pain. Noah’s story has the power to warm our hearts. I believe that suffering is diminished when we witness love in action. This kind of love is how stigma, hate, and fear are transformed.

Noah’s story is an example of the transformative and restorative power that hope and access to an inclusive community can provide. People who experience homelessness, mental illness, trauma, and/or substance use conditions are often met with stigma, discrimination, and prejudice—all of which are forms of bullying. Noah has shown us what helps. As strangers, professionals, and lay individuals, each of us can reach out, include others, show care, and share stories to form a community that provides a lifeline and roadmap to recovery. I believe that people are our greatest resource and source of healing and hope.

Additional Readings:
Chaudoir, S. R., Earnshaw, V. A., & Andel, S. (2013). “Discredited” Versus “Discreditable”: Understanding How Shared and Unique Stigma Mechanisms Affect Psychological and Physical Health Disparities. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 35(1), 75-87.

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Homelessness Puts the Sin in “Sin City”

by Susan Milstrey Wells
May 21, 2013

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Homeless and Housing Resource Network contributing writer Susan Milstrey Wells shares her observations about the stark contrast between the opulence of Las Vegas, its citizens who are homeless, and her uneasiness about how to respond.

I recently returned from attending a conference in Las Vegas. It was my first trip to the aptly named Sin City, where every manner of decadent behavior is on display 24/7. It didn’t take me long to discover that Las Vegas isn’t my kind of town. I don’t drink, smoke, or gamble. I do love to shop, but the prices in Vegas are eye-popping. You can spend $400 to $800 a day on a pool cabana, complete with television and a private cocktail waitress. Or you can order a $1,000 sundae covered in 23K edible gold leaf served with an 18K gold spoon. You get to keep the spoon.

But you don’t have to look far, amid the opulence and the excess, to find the sadder, seamier side of Vegas. On every overpass, street corner, and grand entrance to an even grander hotel and casino are people whose luck has run out. People who are homeless in Las Vegas are in stark contrast to their surroundings. I’ve been in major cities—New York; Washington, DC; San Francisco. I’ve seen people who are homeless. But this time they really got to me.

After 25 years of writing about homelessness, I know that giving money to people I see on the streets isn’t a good idea. But I wanted to help. I wanted to give twice what he was asking to the man whose sign read, “Girlfriend locked in pay toilet; need 50 cents to free her.” I thought his creativity surely was worth $1. Or the man whose sign said simply, “Trust me, this sucks.” Undoubtedly his honesty was worth some help.

I kept my wallet closed, but I couldn’t get these people out of my mind. And a little bit of research revealed that I was only seeing the tip of the iceberg. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD’s) 2012 Point-in-Time Estimates of Homelessness, Las Vegas has the fifth largest number of homeless people in the country, at more than 8,700. Nearly 65 percent of these individuals are unsheltered, but many of them you never see.

In his book Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas, author Matthew O’Brien tells the story of people who live in the tunnels under the Las Vegas strip. Built to protect the desert from flash floods, they are now home to people like Steve, who moved underground after a drug problem left him homeless. Profiled by ABC’s Nightline program in 2009, Steve said he got clean when he met his fiancée, Katherine. Steve and Katherine slept by day—under Caesars Palace, where my room cost $200 a night. They played the slots in the evening, sometimes earning as much as $50 a day.

But the casinos are always the big winners. According to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, in the first two months of this year alone, gaming revenue on the Las Vegas Strip was $1.2 billion. In 2012, the average visitor stayed three nights and wagered $485. This is in a city where the per capita annual income (in 2011 dollars) was $26,755 and 15 percent of residents live below the poverty line.

Perhaps things are getting better. In 2006, Las Vegas enacted its 10-year plan to end homelessness. And the city saw the third largest decrease in homelessness between 2011 and 2012, according to HUD.

Clearly, I don’t have any answers. And I’m not pure of heart. While in Vegas, I luxuriated in a bathroom that was as big as my bedroom back home. I fell in love with a $400 purse that I almost bought. But I wish I’d given a dollar, or maybe two, to the man who needed to free his girlfriend from the restroom. Mostly, I wish I’d had the courage, and the humanity, to look him in the eye and smile.

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I Am Not My Diagnosis

by Melissa Cogswell
April 22, 2013

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Homeless and Housing Resource Network contributing writer Melissa Cogswell shares her personal experience with mental illness—her struggles, her strength, and her realization that having a diagnosis does not mean that you are the diagnosis.

I have bipolar disorder.
It has taken me ten years, numerous doctors and therapists, many medications, countless relationships, and too many cycles through mania and depression to count (or even remember) to realize that I HAVE bipolar, not that I AM bipolar.
I was first diagnosed when I was nineteen. I was informed that I was bipolar and that if I wasn’t heavily medicated, I would kill myself. It felt like a death sentence; at least if I committed suicide, I would have some level of control. After I began the medications, I went from being a driven, curious, academically inclined person to a lump that slept twenty hours a day. I couldn’t read; I couldn’t think; I could barely focus to watch a 30-minute sitcom on TV.
I knew that I couldn’t handle a life I wasn’t living, so I stopped seeing the doctor. I stopped taking the medications. I began to self-medicate. I spent years cycling through mania and depression, occasionally seeking help from a doctor whose first inclination was to medicate me. No one wanted to hear what I wanted. I felt that, because I was ill, what I wanted didn’t matter. The doctors “knew” what was best for me. I had to obey or not receive treatment. I opted not to seek treatment.
In the summer of 2008, I found myself in the emergency room after being sexually assaulted. I was manic and I was scared. I asked for a doctor and I asked for medication; both were provided to me. I immediately liked Dr. S. She wanted to hear how I felt and not just prescribe me drugs. She listened to me. She didn’t just want to talk about my illness. In her office I talked about my hopes, my dreams, my goals, and my relationships. In her office I realized that I wasn’t my illness. My illness was, and always will be, a part of me, but it does not define me.
After several months working with Dr. S and taking medication I realized that it was not what I wanted. The drugs kept me from cycling, dulled my thinking, and had other impacts on my life that I wasn’t comfortable with. With trepidation, I asked her if we could begin to work towards managing my illness without medication. After listening to me explain how I felt I could manage my illness with the coping skills we had identified in our time together, she readily agreed.  She understood that this was my life and my illness, and it was her job to help me implement the choices that I felt were best for me.
Dr. S. helped me understand that I am not bipolar, but instead that I have bipolar disorder. She was the first doctor I worked with who understood that I was not my illness; that I had my own hopes, dreams, and goals; and, just like people without mental illness, I am allowed to decide what is best for me.
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I Could Look People in the Eye

by Donna Wilbur
March 29, 2013

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Donna Wilbur collaborates with Homeless and Housing Resource Network writer Wendy Grace Evans-Dittmer to share her personal recovery experience. In this blog, Donna recounts how, with the support she received along the way, she can now “Look People in the Eye.”

I work at the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation at Boston University as a teacher. At first, I volunteered to teach a typing class. As I received positive reviews, I slowly began to fill in for other teachers who were out on leave or taking time off. After three years, I was offered the opportunity to teach a number of courses, including a computer course, Social Security Income courses, and a Navigating Recovery course that is comparable to developing a Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP).

The Navigating Recovery course was comprised of developing an understanding of fitness, as well as learning the importance of connectedness and wellness. While I don't like to disclose on a regular basis, I choose to disclose when it will be beneficial because I believe that disability needs to be valued.

I was trained by Marilyn Copeland in Vermont and have worked at the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation for 13 years. Currently, I live and work as the House Manager at a women’s lodging house. All of the women in the house have psychiatric symptoms. They all work in professional careers and choose to live in the house where they receive support for their demanding lives. I have a third job working with a young adult man who has severe disabilities, which include hearing voices, obsessive compulsive disorder, and paranoid delusions.

I had my own darkest days before I entered the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation's Training for the Future course and began my recovery. I never thought that I could finish the program, but my father and my best friend supported me through this time. Prior to entering the program I had been on disability for ten years, had posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms, suffered from bipolar disorder, and was receiving trauma therapy. It was through my therapy that I learned of Bessel Van der Kolk's work at The Trauma Center in Boston. I went through several hospitalizations prior to enrolling in Training for the Future, but eventually completed my B.S.W. at Bridgewater State College with assistance from Massachusetts Rehabilitation, who helped me with the cost of books and transportation. Additionally, they paid for half of the cost of enrolling in Training for the Future, while Social Security, through the PASS program, covered the other half. I use much of this training at the Center now.

With the aid of a service dog—a miniature, wire-haired dachshund—I am able to get out of bed in the morning; she helps me not to disassociate. Lee Walmack, a mentor, once said when I thought I could not finish my program, "I hope you dance." When I think of where I am today, and where I have been, I know that I am able to dance. At that time I had no confidence, but by the end I could look people in the eye. I had hope.

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Where did you sleep last night?

by Rachael Kenney
March 04, 2013

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Homeless and Housing Resource Network writer Rachael R. Kenney recently volunteered for Denver’s annual point-in-time homeless count. In this blog, she recounts her experience and the important lessons she learned when she asked, “Where did you sleep last night?”

Did I really want to do this again? Two years ago I volunteered for Denver’s homeless count. I was stationed in an administrative building and the staff were all in a training that day so my volunteer partner and I only handed out one survey for the entire four-hour shift. I longed for my experience at the Boston count a few years prior, where volunteers take to the street on foot and in vehicles. We didn’t see anyone then, either, but at least it was a change of scenery. But I’ve been meaning to get more involved locally and they say that the best time is the present, so I signed up. I was pleasantly surprised.

We set up at a folding table in the hallway of an administrative building. Instead of us playing the role of eager young salespeople, nearly everyone who passed approached us to ask what we were up to. My partners and I would explain the homeless count and, much to my surprise, the person would usually sit down to talk with us, including: the nervous man who I was certain would say that he had housing—he didn’t; the young woman whose daughter was bouncing in her stroller—I wondered if offering her fruit snacks was a good idea; and the smiling young man whose son wore sweatpants and sweet little sneakers.

There were two people who stood out and tugged at my heart. The first was an elderly woman who was hearing impaired and didn’t have hearing aids. I’m hearing impaired and the thought of going without aids is scary, even just “thank you, please come again” can spiral into a stressful experience. Rather than read her the survey like we were trained to do, we handed it to her to fill out on her own. She told us about her day as she carefully checked off the boxes. When she reached the end she couldn’t remember what city she was in the night before and began to cry. I wanted so badly to walk around the table and hug her, but I didn’t think that was appropriate and I just sat there.

The second person was a man in his mid-30s. His sly smile and lanky gait reminded me of a goofy friend on a sitcom. He told us that he was supposed to check into detox that morning but he wasn’t clean so he needed to wait. It amazes me that, even though I’ve worked so hard to break down my stereotypes, it still knocks me off guard when someone is high and communicates so well; these beliefs are such a deep part of our psyches. He made an inappropriate joke; we all laughed. He was trying to get clean to be with his family; we all cried inside. He seemed genuine about wanting to change. We rooted for him as he strolled out into the cold and hoped that we were right.

Almost everyone I spoke to that day fit somewhere on the spectrum of homelessness. I reflected on the fact that I was only two miles from home in an affluent town that doesn’t seem to know poverty, yet here I was, surrounded by it. These were people who I wouldn’t give a second thought to if they were in line behind me in the grocery store or strolling past as I walked the dog. The afternoon was a stark reminder of the importance of open mindedness, of providing a spectrum of services, and of how important it is to ask the question, “Where did you sleep last night?”

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Katy Hanlon In Recovery: Certified Peer Specialist

by Katy Hanlon
February 04, 2013

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Homeless and Housing Resource Network writer Katy Hanlon recently trained to become a Certified Peer Specialist. In this blog, she and fellow writer Wendy Grace Evans-Dittmer collaborate to share her experience.

I have not always had a voice.

At the first of nine eight-hour classes to become a Certified Peer Specialist I met a Marine veteran. He introduced himself to me and expressed his thoughts on mental health recovery. He had applied to the program three times before being accepted, but never gave up. That impressed me—his conviction. We developed a friendship that was part of a larger community. I drove him home from class every week. I was connecting with someone I would not normally have the opportunity to meet. This tied back to our classes, where one of the things I learned was the value of difference. Peer Specialists, united in recovery, are all coming from unique places; this is an asset to the profession.

The Certified Peer Specialist (CPS) course I am taking is provided by The Transformation Center of Boston and funded by the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health. It is the only certifying program in the state. I initially took this peer-run course because I wanted to gain knowledge and experience to contribute to my work on SAMHSA’s Bringing Recovery Supports to Scale Technical Assistance Center Strategy (BRSS TACS) initiative. I soon realized my strong desire to also give back to the peer community that has given me so much.

Recovery is difficult to define because its path is determined by the individual. With input from the community, SAMHSA offers a working definition that encompasses the four basic tenets: health, home, purpose, and community. Supporting the importance of community is the term peer itself. It is not possible to be a peer or a peer specialist in isolation. There must always be mutuality.

Not all states have certification programs for peer specialists and there is no national listing of programs. Georgia started their program in 2001 with the Georgia Certified Peer Specialist Project and they are key program contributors as other states look at certification. While there continues to be discussion about whether the certification process removes the “peerness” in peers, there are efforts underway to develop a set of national standards. The International Association of Peer Supporters, formerly The National Association of Peer Specialists, is bringing its voice to the table and BRSS TACS will offer a recovery framework. These efforts will be key as states continue to broaden Medicaid funding for CPS services.

Prior to learning about the Peer Recovery Movement, its historical context, and the opportunity to become a CPS, I experienced all of the traditional paths of treatment. My acceptance to the Boston University Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation’s Training for the Future program changed my perspective as it introduced me to the concept of recovery, peers, and hope for the future. Yes, hope. I gained so much from my peers that I wanted to give back by sharing my own recovery story, which will always be a work in progress.

As part of the nine classes, we had a three-day retreat. Each day focused on specific modules of the curriculum developed by The Transformation Center. All of the modules supported the foundation of a CPS: Peer Support, “In” but not “Of” the system, and Change Agent. This retreat not only brought our class of 26 together, but by example gave me a sense of empowerment and purpose.

I have a voice now.

To find out if there is a Certified Peer Specialist training near you, reach out to local community-based Recovery Learning Communities, State Department of Mental Health, organizations such as The Transformation Center and New York Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services (NYAPRS), or projects such as the Georgia Certified Peer Specialist Project.

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