Will Hall – Graduate student (and Portland resident)
Will’s cause: Treatment alternatives for mental illness
Why I was moved to support this cause:
Since I was a child I’ve struggled with extreme emotions, voices and powerful out of body experiences. I remember falling to the ground once in third grade, writhing in agony because I believed something was grabbing my back. I saw cartoons projected on the ceiling, and my fear was sometimes so strong I fell mute. I often hid away, alone, overwhelmed and unable to describe what was going on.
At age 26, I hit a breaking point and wandered the streets of San Francisco all night hearing angry voices telling me to kill myself. I ended up on a locked psychiatric ward. For the next year, I was in and out of hospitals and homeless shelters.
My diagnosis was schizoaffective schizophrenia, and the treatment was powerful anti-psychotic medications. What the doctors had to offer didn’t help me, however. I left the hospital with more problems than I had going in, and I had to cope with the trauma of restraints, seclusion, plus a stigmatizing label that offered little hope for the future.
With nowhere to turn, I started to search for an answer on my own. In 2000, some friends in the Northampton, Mass., area let me stay with them, and I got a job in a local convenience store. Then I worked in a bookstore. The daily routine of a job, getting away from the memories in San Francisco, the small town tempo–it all helped. Step by step, over these difficult years, I learned a different way of responding to my madness.
I learned about nutrition and changed my diet. I took classes in yoga and meditation and began to see an acupuncturist. I watched for early warning signs of problems and began to consider the spiritual aspects of what I was going through, listening to the voices I heard and exploring their meaning. At one point back in San Francisco, for example, I heard a loud voice telling me I had to do yoga or I would die. It was frightening, but I realized it was like the voice of an angry parent or guardian looking out for me. So that voice is why I began to practice yoga.
I might be different than most people around me, but being different also means being creative and sensitive. I stopped seeing myself as a broken person with no chance for recovery. Most importantly, I reached out to other people who had also been diagnosed as mentally ill, and we began supporting each other in discovering our own pathways to healing. For too long I had been trying to do this all on my own.
The upshot is, as I grew stronger and healthier, I was inspired to dedicate myself to helping others make it through the ordeal I had survived. Though many people find good support from doctors and medications, growing numbers around the world are calling for alternatives to the mainstream “one size fits all” approach to mental health.
What I am personally doing to support this cause:
In 2000, I met Oryx Cohen, a University of Massachusetts graduate student who had suffered similarly to me. We hit it off. We were both looking for treatment alternatives, and we wanted to meet others like us. So in 2001, we co-founded the Freedom Center in Northampton, starting with a public library computer, a free e-mail account, and one support meeting a month held in a local church. The meetings took off. People came in to share their amazing stories.
Today we’ve grown to a weekly acupuncture clinic, two yoga classes, a writing group, meditation group and two peer support groups. Thousands have been helped by the Freedom Center. We’re trying to reach people not helped by traditional care, people looking for alternatives to medication and diagnostic labels.
We try and give people space to find their own pathway and treatments and let them explore, with support, a variety of “wellness resources.” That might include medications or it might not. We do make people aware of the downside of the drugs, but we let them choose how they want to proceed.
Last September, for example, the Freedom Center and the New York-based Icarus Project jointly published a Harm Reduction Guide To Coming Off Psychiatric Drugs. There are a lot of risks coming off psychiatric drugs, and if someone is finding it too intense, we often say, “Why don’t you consider going back on the medication and focus for the moment on finding yourself a stable housing situation. Or feeding yourself better.”
The Freedom Center does a lot of educational work and public events, and we have been invited to talk in places like California, Alaska, Utah, Ireland and Europe. We had a “Bed Push” last summer, where we rolled a hospital bed around town to call for more choice and compassion in hospital care. I also founded “Madness Radio,” a community FM radio show now heard everywhere via the Internet. So the Freedom Center is growing from a local service to a national voice for mental health alternatives.
Hard to know where this will all lead in the future. I myself am now in Portland, Ore., completing a Masters Degree in psychology at the Process Work Institute. I miss my friends in Northampton.
What you can do:
Experiences that get called mental illness are shrouded in fear and misunderstanding. Take the time to listen without judgment or preconception to people diagnosed with mental illness and have the courage to speak up if you’ve ever had a brush with madness yourself.
I invite you to learn about alternative and holistic approaches and to take a stand for greater choice and options in treatments and care. And, if you are in Massachusetts, please come by and visit one of our acupuncture sessions or yoga classes.
Or visit our Web site, Freedom Center, to make a tax-deductible donation to help us spread our message of hope and vision for change. All of the Freedom Center’s services are free and run by people who themselves have a psychiatric diagnosis, so our budget is just $21,000 for the 2009 fiscal year. The volunteer-run Freedom Center is not itself a 501(C)3, but it is supported by the mental health non-profit, Choices. This umbrella group provides us with backroom services and charges us 5% for the gifts run through their organization. So tax-deductible donations are made to “Freedom Center/CHOICES Inc.”
OUR COMMENT – Will Hall’s personal story to find peace and choice is an example for all persons with chronic illness and health concerns to hear. He is a role model for persons with mental illness, a person of courage to speak publicly about his experience and recovery. If you have a chance to hear Will speak, either in Portland or elsewhere – do it.