A Busy “Listening” Week

When we started this Task Force, I was resolved to figure out how members could listen to each other and hear additional perspectives on the mental health system and the struggles of those who live with mental illness. I’ve been told that this is a sort of “preaching to the choir” because Task Force members are already deeply immersed in/knowledgeable about mental health service delivery. But, years of working to change human service systems and organizations have taught me that we all develop “mental models” (lenses through which we see things) that sometimes actually BLOCK our ability to “take a fresh look”.

This is why at our last Task Force meeting, I asked members to make presentations to each other about their current activities in the mental health system. I know that each of us learned something new from listening to one another. We will finish these presentations at our March meeting, and we will have an opportunity to listen to Judge Buckner, who has a very unique perspective on both individuals who struggle with mental illness and the system that serves them.

The Listening Sessions we held last week at Town Hall represented another way that we could “listen fresh”. While we didn’t have a huge turnout, we heard the touching testimony of parents who have struggled to guide their children to stability in a system that itself is excruciatingly unstable. We also heard from volunteers and professionals who are working so hard to address the needs of those parents, their children and other consumers.

My week actually began at the Legislative Breakfast sponsored by NAMI-Orange and the Mental Health Association. This was another “listening session” for me and other Task Force members who attended. Here, after being touched by the story Charlene told us of her own journey, we listened for the impact of the current economic crisis on mental health services. And did we ever hear it! Not a pretty picture. Cuts everywhere. It is very important that those who care make sure that our legislators and Governor Perdue hear from us about what is important.

From a purely personal point of view, this last week of listening has helped me realize that our Task Force is not going to “fix” the deep, complex problems tied to a mental health system reform effort that has been less than successful. We are local and we should be looking for places locally where a reasonable amount of action without a whole lot of funding can matter. And, I should say, we’ve already heard some good ideas. We should also be looking for a few areas where local advocacy multiplied across many areas of the state might have an impact.

It disturbs me that we are back at that point where money/survival is such a dominant force in our lives that almost any other “cause” is completely set aside. As I write this, I’m listening to the “talking heads” once more reminding us of the “doom and gloom” which lie ahead – for years to come. So, state cuts in mental health service budgets jump to the top of the list. But, this does NOT stop us from “looking fresh” at the system, making local changes through collaboration, and changing the attitudes (through awareness) of citizens toward those who struggle with mental illness.

Natalie Ammarell, Chair

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