Monday, December 28, 2009

My Mental Health Heroes of the Year - 2009

My true heroes in mental health are those whose efforts never come to our attention, yet change lives: A mother who battles indifferent clinicians and bureaucrats on behalf of her kid; a volunteer who arrives early to turn on lights and arrange chairs and greet visitors; a doctor who refuses to give up on a patient, a postgrad research assistant laboring tirelessly on peasant wages; a middle manager who sticks his neck out on a risky hire; a patient who falls down seven times and gets up eight ...

My choices here are confined to the public realm, and are restricted by my limited awareness - a fact which may have excluded worthy candidates but hardly diminishes the accomplishments of those cited here. Further, they all got started toiling in obscurity. Thus, even though I am singing praises to a select few, I urge you to think of this piece as a tribute to all our mental health heroes.

Without further ado ...

Public person hero of the year - Barack Obama. No question about it. This man has put it all on the line in support of the proposition that the government serves all the people and not just the privileged few. We may not get the health care reform we need, but thanks to the President’s heroic efforts it appears we will get a much better deal than the rotten one that insurance companies, death panel nutjobs, and various enemies of the people tell us we should shut up and be grateful for.

Internet hero of the year - Katherine Stone. Katherine’s blog Postpartum Progress is a must-read on a normal day. In May, she outdid herself with a Mother’s Day Rally for Moms' Mental Health, featuring an all-star line-up of “warrior mother” guest bloggers whose contributions cast a bright light on a dimly-lit area of mental illness.

Soon after, in July, Katherine publicly scolded the editors of Time Magazine “for allowing an article on a topic that they clearly knew so little about to be published,” then rallied fellow advocates and experts in a letter to Time. Of all things, in its Person of the Year issue, Time singled out Katherine’s letter as one of its “Letters of the Year” of 2009.

Research hero of the year - David Braff MD. Think of this as homage to all of those brilliant individuals who have dedicated their lives to figuring out new ways to improve ours. Earlier this year, Dr Braff of UCSD received the prestigious Warren Award from the International Congress of Schizophrenia Research. In his Award lecture, I heard Dr Braff discuss “endophenotype,” a field he has pioneered and which is revolutionizing psychiatric research.

Endophenotype allows researchers to investigate an outward feature (phenotype) such as psychosis by looking at underlying phenomena, such as the inability of the brain to filter out sensory stimuli. Today's thinking-outside-the-box translates into tomorrow's practical applications. As this blog says, "Knowledge is Necessity."

Advocate hero of the year- Kathi Stringer. The reason you have probably not heard of Kathi is that she is smart rather than loud. Loud is the unfortunate tendency of mental health advocacy and it has gotten us next to nowhere. For years, Kathi, who is based in Riverside, CA, has quietly championed quality improvement (QI). For years, hardly anyone listened. This year, people are listening.

Kathi comes from a machinist background, where things need to be done right. As an example, if aeronautics refused to apply QI, we would constantly have planes falling out of the sky. QI, which is well-known in every aspect of manufacturing and services, including health, is ignored in mental health. But, as Kathi explains, nearly all the standards we need to improve mental health services are already codified into law and in contracts. We just need smart advocates to act as vigilant watchdogs. Then change can happen, and happen fast.

This summer, at a NAMI CA conference, I heard Kathi lead a workshop on QI. You could have heard a pin drop.

Media hero of the year - “The Soloist.” The movie, based on Steve Lopez’ book of the same name, recounts the real-life relationship between journalist Lopez and homeless music prodigy Nathaniel Ayers. Unlike “Shine” and “A Beautiful Mind,” which end triumphantly on major chords, “The Soloist” concludes on an uneasy note. Rather than the hero-outsider making it in “our” world, we must come to terms with the outsider choosing to remain firmly planted in his. In doing so, we are forced to face our own fears and ignorance.

My guess is that as recently as a few years ago, even the most informed amongst us would not have been ready for this. The fact that the movie met with the success it has is a tribute to our ability to change.

Recovery hero of the year - Abraham Low Self-Help Systems (ALSHS). Recently, Recovery Inc changed its name to Recovery International, then merged with the Abraham Low Institute, which resulted in its present name. Recovery Inc was founded in 1937 by neuropsychiatrist Abraham Low (pictured here), who espoused the radical idea that - with the right cognitive skills and peer help - patients could recover from even severe mental illness. Some 600 self-help groups exist worldwide.

In its new incarnation, ALSHS is retooling to reach out to a wider audience. Stay tuned  ...

My profound appreciation to this year's heroes, both the ones mentioned here and all those who in their own ways are making our world a better place.


herb said...

Dear John,

Bravo, bravo and kudos to you John for understanding and knowing and imparting your knowledge and wisdom with all of us in a healthy, healing and caring vain.

My hero’s while in my role as a support person and proactive health care advocate and husband for over four decades is certainly my spouse Joyce along with the John’s, Susan’s, Colleen’s, Nancy’s, Marsha’s, Jen’s, Charlie’s, Liz’s and many others that have befriended me as I learn from them and as I’ve come to truly and strongly admire them all for their inner-strength, tenacity and perseverance despite insidious and heinous disorders.

Bravo to you all whether named or not. In my knowledge you are all incredible individuals and an inspiration to all and heroes every year.


Katherine Stone said...

Truly an honor. Thank you so much, John.