From the Pilgrims and American Indians to our present-day gatherings of family and friends, Thanksgiving has always ultimately been about community. And community is at the heart of what elevates the human condition. As we celebrated Thanksgiving yesterday, I was humbled by the joyful gathering of four generations at my home – from three grandparents to four great grandchildren, and many in-between, including family from Italy and two fiancées who will become part of our extended clan in the coming year! The joy was pleated with sadness and longing for those who we love who were not with us. True since 1621, the bittersweet commandment of Thanksgiving is to celebrate who and what our community is – even when some are missing and maybe even in honor of those we miss.
But mental illness often insidiously severs those crucial human bonds. Organizations like Collaborative Support Programs of New Jersey (CSPNJ) work to restore those ties and re-connect those with mental illness to meaningful relationships and community. Retaining or rebuilding community while living with serious mental illness is no easy task. But CSPNJ understands that the things that matter most in life are generally not easy. With CSPNJ, supporting and rebuilding community is celebrated every day.
1. Ensuring the basics. It’s difficult to participate in a rich life in community when one’s essential needs are not met. When people suffering from serious mental illness are first discharged from institutions like psychiatric hospitals or jail (which is increasingly the case), they need basic services like housing, medical care, detox services, and even state-issued identification cards. CSPNJ addresses these needs, enabling service users to more fully participate as members of their communities.
2. Restoring a sense of dignity. Many service users at CSPNJ have lost touch with or have been ostracized by family and friends and haven’t worked for many years due to their mental illnesses. CSPNJ’s Community Wellness Centers, serving over 5,000 people across NJ, are a place where people can be themselves, feel a sense of belonging, and give and receive support from people have been through similar experiences. All Center leaders have lived experience with mental illness.
3. Developing a sense of purpose. Having a sense of purpose is strongly correlated with mental health and well-being for all of us, including those of us with serious mental illness. CSPNJ facilitates opportunities for program participants to develop meaningful and purposeful work – anything from dog walking to re-entering one’s former profession. From the executive director to the Community Wellness Center leaders, over 60% of the staff at CSPNJ are “peers,”people with lived experience of mental illness. Not only does this mean that understanding and respect are woven into the fabric of the organization, but it gives service users hope and helps them imagine a path of their own.
4. Giving Back. For people recovering from mental illness, work can be seen as part of the building blocks of a new identity. Part of that new identity for many includes “giving back.” That’s why volunteering with CSPNJ’s Turn a Frown Around Program is so popular among service users. This program links CSPNJ volunteers with individuals in hospitals and nursing homes – places where disconnection and loneliness is often prevalent.
5. Being heard and being part of something larger. Our Global Mental Health Program (GMHP) is working with WHO to develop the new guidelines for mental health and behavioral disorders that will be used globally. Lots of mental health experts from around the world have contributed to this work led by Dr. Geoffrey Reed, Scientific Co-Director of the GMHP. Now it is time to hear from people who have lived experience of mental illness. Members of the CSPNJ community have stepped up in spades. Over the past few weeks, leaders of CSPNJ have conducted multiple focus groups with CSPNJ members to hear what they think about the proposed guidelines and to get their input on concepts and language that are used to describe disorders like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression.
CSPNJ is building community every day with thousands of individuals with serious mental illness who might otherwise be disconnected from family and friends. Having connected with CSPNJ, individuals with serious mental illness are reclaiming dignity, purpose and an experience of belonging. They are contributing their ideas with us regarding how we diagnose and talk about mental illnesses, and they are claiming their place as members in community.
Thanksgiving is about community, and community is about mental health. I am grateful to CSPNJ for their work every day, to all the members of CSPNJ who have worked with us on this WHO project, and to my friends and family who help me know the health and healing that comes with community.