Honest, Open, Proud: On Coming Out of the Mental Illness Closet
By Carl Blumenthal
Airing Hopes and Fears in an Atmosphere of Support
From the 18th floor of the glittering new Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) in Long Island City, New York’s burgeoning skyscrapers rise like so many peaks and domes of glass, steel and stone. Encased within this hermetically-sealed office tower, even if you were possessed by the proverbial “bats in your belfry,” no one outside would hear you screaming, either by day or night.
Such speculation is apropos, my being at DOHMH on Friday and Saturday, August 6 and 7, for a training on “Honest, Open, Proud” (formerly “Coming Out Proud”), a program of the National Consortium on Stigma and Empowerment, which is based at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. The six-hour course, facilitated by peers, enables other peers to decide if, when and how to disclose their mental illness to family, friends, employers, co-workers, etc.
Twenty-five of us have gathered in a room small enough to encourage an intimacy reinforced by the nature of our jobs—we are all peer counselors for whom being “honest, open and proud” is a requirement of our work. But that doesn’t mean we always live up to this demanding standard. Here’s a chance to become better at helping other peers decide whether and when they want to publicly “join the club” of those like us who live with mental illness.
Yumiko Ikuta, Director of Rehabilitation Programs in the Bureau of Mental Health, is our host. Jonathon Larson, a psychologist at the Institute of Technology, and Kyra Wilson, an advocate for NAMI of Greater Chicago, are our Honest, Open, Proud (HOP) facilitators. All three are peers, but we wouldn’t know it until they tell us bits and pieces of their illness and recovery stories.
In the first class we weigh the pros and cons of disclosure, both short-term and long. The group setting allows for an airing of hopes and fears in an atmosphere of support. But the trick is to avoid pressuring the individual one way or another. The emphasis is on choice, whether now or in the future.
If the decision to disclose is a go, then the second class concentrates on the circumstances of that coming out: how, when, where and to whom. Although the curriculum offers a step-by-step approach, there’s plenty of room for improvisation. Jon and Kyra encourage us in both the first and second exercises to use examples from our experiences of being honest, open and proud.
Finally, in the third two-hour class, we design our disclosure statements, a summary of our illness and recovery, what used to be called an “elevator speech” (but in this building would take less than “a New York minute” because the elevators are so fast). The facilitators provide a template to ease our words onto the page and eventually into what we hope will be sympathetic ears.
However, Jon and Kyra don’t stop there. Like a wrestling tag team whose purpose is to engage the crowd as much as each other, they exhort us in the techniques of running good groups, demonstrate those practices, and lead us through a series of role plays. As one colleague tells me, “I’ve been a peer counselor for eight years but no one’s ever taught me how to do this!”
Postscript: While HOP, including all training materials, did not cost us anything—DOHMH graciously provided bagels and sandwiches both days—the benefits are immense. Not only did we learn how to facilitate the program for clients of our agencies, but the process also enabled a group of more or less strangers, albeit all peer counselors, to bond over our shared efforts to do the best for those clients and ourselves. Thank goodness Jon and Kyra blew in from the windy city and Yumiko was there to catch them on the 18th floor!
For more information about Honest, Open, Proud, see www.comingoutproudprogram.org. If you would like to start a program in your group, contact firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org or call Yumiko at (347) 396-7247.
Pullout: “The group setting allows for an airing of hopes and fears in an atmosphere of support. But the trick is to avoid pressuring the individual one way or another. The emphasis is on choice, whether now or in the future.”