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Talking Openly About Mental Illness

Creating a space for safety and love

What if you could talk entirely openly about your experience of mental illness?

What if there were a space you could go where you could talk to people who would not judge you, people could be there for you unconditionally, who would just listen?

What if that space wasn’t a support group, a place that’s defined explicitly as something that’s “for” people with mental illness in their lives? What if it could be a mix of people with direct lived experience -- people who have struggled themselves, perhaps thought about or attempted suicide, people who are actively facing the ins-and-outs of real life mental illness -- and people who have loved ones who have struggled, attempted suicide, died by suicide?

I had this experience in the days leading up to the Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk. The Overnight is a tradition (and fundraiser) organized by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). This year was my second overnight. I walked in D.C. alongside my mom and a group of new friends; last year, I walked among friends and strangers in New York.

AFSP provides a number of resources for people facing mental illness and their loved ones, particularly for people who have lost someone to suicide. The Overnight, in many ways, is one of these resources, a chance to connect with others who also have personal experiences with mental illness.

The group I connected with was brought together by Elijah’s Journey, an initiative that aims to be a Jewish resource on the issues of suicide and suicide prevention. We were connected not only by our life experiences with mental illness, but by our Jewish backgrounds.

Did that similarity make it easier to speak openly? Traditionally, Jewish communities have been quiet, sometimes silent, about suicide. Like other social issues, such as addiction or domestic violence, mental illness and suicide can be frightening to face in an insular community. People facing mental illness as well as families left behind after a suicide death sometimes describe feeling isolated, on the margins, or misunderstood by their Jewish communities. This experience is not unique to the Jewish community. It likely crosses the boundaries of other communities with a history of marginalization. There is fear of “airing our dirty laundry” and being judged by “outsiders.”

Still, in this group, we spoke more openly about our experiences of struggle, sadness, fear, loss, and moving forward than, I’d venture to guess, close friends of many years might speak about these issues. We kept noticing, and saying, that it seemed like we’d been best friends for years. Truly, we had just met.

What created a space of safety?

I’d venture to guess that, at least in part, it’s love. Love, as defined in the dictionary as “an intense feeling of deep affection.” But, also, love as defined in an excerpt from this poem by Marge Piercy, called “To Have Without Holding”:

Learning to love differently is hard,

love with the hands wide open, love

with the doors banging on their hinges,

the cupboard unlocked, the wind

roaring and whimpering in the rooms

rustling the sheets and snapping the blinds

that thwack like rubber bands

in an open palm.

It hurts to love wide open

stretching the muscles that feel

as if they are made of wet plaster,

then of blunt knives, then

of sharp knives.

It hurts to thwart the reflexes

of grab, of clutch; to love and let

go again and again. It pesters to remember

the lover who is not in the bed,

to hold back what is owed to the work

that gutters like a candle in a cave

without air, to love consciously,

conscientiously, concretely, constructively.

There isn’t research to support love, but there is research to support the idea that “connectedness” serves as a protective factor, and that feeling a sense of “belongingness” helps people feel that they want to live.

Loving consciously, conscientiously, concretely, and constructively. Imagine the life-saving power of doing so.

Copyright 2017 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved

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