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Corinna West on Poetry for Personal Power

On the future of mental health

Eric Maisel
Source: Eric Maisel

The following interview is part of a “future of mental health” interview series that will be running for 100+ days. This series presents different points of view about what helps a person in distress. I’ve aimed to be ecumenical and included many points of view different from my own. I hope you enjoy it. As with every service and resource in the mental health field, please do your due diligence. If you’d like to learn more about these philosophies, services, and organizations mentioned, follow the links provided.


Interview with Corinna West

EM: Can you tell us a little bit about Poetry for Personal Power?

CW: We provide community resilience messaging events, resilience capacity building for nonprofits, and peer support programs. We are uber for health care activists. We have a small crew of people who like doing paperwork and grant writing and accounting. This crew forms a co-op with a lot of other artists, advocates, and entrepreneurs to lead them through paid health care advocacy and social change strategies. We believe artists and advocates should not work for free, because we are the creators of new paradigms. It's time to stop asking the gatekeepers and start asking the real innovators what is possible.

EM: Can you tell us a bit about what you’ve learned from you own experiences being diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder?

CW: The biggest thing I learned about the diagnosis was the idea that I had to build a new life, and could not get back to my old life. I found that immensely helpful in recovering from this traumatic brain injury. I see the other brain injury people wandering around with that concept mourning everything they have lost, and trying to get back to the way things were. But it's a lot easier to pick up all the pieces the second time and build a new life after you learn that concept once the first time. Poetry for Personal Power's artists and advocates are a scalable model to lead as many other people as possible their own re-discovery processes.

EM: You are also a performance artist. Can you tell us a little bit about your intentions with your performance art?

CW: I like spoken word poetry because it says so much in a dense amount of time. I had a sixty-minute speech about competing in the Olympics and judo with PowerPoint and lots of photos. Then I did a seven minute spoken word poem about it. Here is the link to that poem

I found that the seven-minute poem says more than the sixty-minute speech so I like poetry because it is a dense, concise form of communication that speaks to people's emotions as well as their intellect. And we really make decisions out of our emotions. So it can get beyond art, can get beyond people's box where they don't want to listen to you. The research shows that you can't logic someone out of a belief system, you have to go about using different means.

Poetry for Personal Power now has twenty-five sponsored artists who also help other people work through these issues. Every time a poet gets on stage to talk about overcoming adversity, they are telling the stories of other people in the room with the same kind of adversity.

EM: What are your thoughts on the current, dominant paradigm of diagnosing and treating mental disorders and the use of so-called psychiatric medication to treat mental disorders in children, teens and adults?

CW: Well, if you look carefully at the long-term data on this paradigm it is doing more harm than good. This is clearly the message in Robert Whitaker's analysis and the mainstream has been unable to refute the data. More and more people are catching on.

Poetry for Personal Power does a lot of community outreach events and what we find is that basically everyone knows this information except mental health workers. So, Poetry for Personal Power's resilience building work is to go out in the community and explain what to do about this. How can people actually help each other? Well, by building resilience and building programs that increase resilience. Some of this is individual strengths and skills, but more of this happens on a community level - do we fight oppression, build safe environments, and build pathways to wellness in our community? We are spreading specific tools for organizations to increase their impacts on resilience.

EM: If you had a loved one in emotional or mental distress, what would you suggest that he or she do or try?

CW: I would suggest trying a lot of wellness stuff. Exercise, meditation, poetry, gardening, activism, or spirituality. Try all that stuff first. Then try talking to someone who's been in a really hard time before and see what they did to get themselves out of it. Then, only if all that didn't work and if they felt in danger, to try psych drugs. I think a lot of Psych survivors would recommend psych drugs but I think that they are like opiates for physical pain, they don't solve the problem, but once in a while you need to get some distance on the pain before you can solve the problem.

Our artists and advocates work to get the wellness information out there because there are so many things the community can do to help each other, but we have been disempowered by the disease model. We have a talk called "DeMythologizing" that challenges the disease model and points towards community resilience solutions. When we do this talk, audiences breathe this immense sigh of relief because people feel like they can help each other after all.


Poetry for Personal Power's program director and founder, Corinna West, is an Olympic athlete with lived experience of mental illness recovery. She has many qualifications and experience for this project. She has a Masters degree in Pharmaceutical Chemistry. She was a catalyst for the Creating Community Solutions national mental health dialogue project funded by the Greater Kansas City Healthcare Foundation. She was a Cohort VIII fellow of the Kansas Health foundation that brought her into connection with many tobacco treatment experts. She was recipient of the 2013 Judi Chamberlin award for advocate of the year of the Recovery movement or mental health civil rights movement. Corinna is a connector; a person who naturally builds coalitions, partnerships and collaborations, subsequently, Poetry for Personal Power is a highly connected, community-engaged organization.


Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is the author of 40+ books, among them The Future of Mental Health, Rethinking Depression, Mastering Creative Anxiety, Life Purpose Boot Camp and The Van Gogh Blues. Write Dr. Maisel at, visit him at, and learn more about the future of mental health movement at

To learn more about and/or to purchase The Future of Mental Health visit here

To see the complete roster of 100 interview guests, please visit here:

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