Breaking Down the Walls: Getting People Together to Talk About Mental Health

Here are some ideas and guidelines for putting on community events from Icarus superhero Ashley McNamara with help from long time community organizer Alli Starr, compiled by Sascha Scatter and edited by Alex Samets:

The following ideas come from Ashley's experience with The Icarus Project:

One of the best ways to get people together to start an ongoing support community or to start raising awareness about mental health issues is to organize a compelling event.

An exciting event will get people out of their homes and into a common space. And while you can start a support group just by putting up a few flyers and telling a few friends, having some kind of event can really get energy moving in your community and attract people who might not show up otherwise. Also, starting dialogues in your community can be an incredibly empowering thing to do. In the following section we're going to discuss putting on an open event in your community. We'll outline some considerations for leading discussions and developing and sharing group facilitation skills.

The first step is to figure out what kind of event you want to put together, such as a workshop, panel, open mic, story telling, lecture, group art-making, or something else entirely. Plan a frame for the event"”get organized about the shape you want the event to take. Then you need to come up with really good text about it. Make and post captivating flyers and get that text out into email listserves, newsletters, newspapers, event calendars, or anywhere that interested people in your community might be likely to see it. Compelling art is really important, and we've provided a bunch to make this easier for you.

Here are some steps to think about if you decide to get people together by hosting some kind of speak out or community discussion:

First, the organizers should sit down and brainstorm about why they are having this event:

a. Are you trying to get people to discuss a particular topic, like suicide prevention or psych drugs?

b. Are you trying to create networks for better mental health support because the ones that exist are inadequate?

c. Are you trying to get a discussion going about "mental illness" and what it means in a world that's obviously insane?

d. Are you trying to create a safe space for people to tell their stories and find common ground?

e. Are you trying to share information about treatments and coping skills?

f. Are you trying to make changes in the power structures of your school or local government?

g. Are you trying to raise awareness about The Icarus Project or another specific project?

h. What are you hoping will come out of this event?

Second, when you've got a sense of your purpose, think about your potential attendees.

a. Are they likely to feel comfortable talking?

b. Would it make things easier if you had capable presenters to generate discussion?

c. Would it be a good idea to get together some really good text from various writers and thinkers and use that to generate discussion?

d. Would it be helpful to come into the event with a list of potential questions and problems to be discussed, which can be posted on a board and ask attendees if they want to add to this list? (or email those out ahead of time?)

e. Would it be helpful to watch a movie to stimulate discussion?

Whatever tactics you use, be sure to have some kind of catalyst to get people engaged and inspired to participate.

Third, draft a piece of text that will lure people into the event and use it to publicize and make flyers. Using engaging questions is a really effective technique. Some potential questions that could grab people's attention and get them interested: "Are you satisfied with the mental health support available in our community?" or "Why aren't we talking about suicide prevention at a school that has seen seven suicides in two years?" or "What does it mean to be called crazy in a crazy world?" or "Is giving people psych drugs so they can function in a twisted world the same thing as feeding plants chemicals so they can grow in damaged soil?" Give people something to identify with and think about. Check out the sample flyers in the toolkit for good examples that you can draw from or copy and use.

Fourth, book a good space for the workshop. Try to find somewhere that isn't too noisy, but also isn't too sterile. If you can find a place that is easy to reach by public transportation and accessible by wheelchair, that's always a plus.

At the event:

a. Water should be available. Food is always a really good thing.

b. Make sure everyone can see each other, if possible. It is much easier to get people talking to each other if they are all sitting in a circle rather than facing the same direction.

c. Come prepared with a contact list so you can get the names and contact info of people who would be interested in continuing the conversation. Make this available from the beginning and mention it a couple times.

And here are some ideas from Alli Star about organizing an event:

Beginnings are crucial. Whoever is facilitating the event should introduce themselves and speak a little about the structure of the event. If there aren't too many people, everyone should introduce themselves and maybe say a brief word about why they came and what they're interested in. I take a moment and silently remember why it is I'm doing what I'm about to do, and I remember that it's bigger than any one of us. I try to get my ego out of the way, because it's a gift be able to share with each other in a society where we're alienated from one another so much of the time.

a. Start out by explaining a frame for the event. A frame allows the group to feel "held." Let people know what you're hoping will come out of this event. If you're hoping to create a space where people open up and share details of their lives with each other, express this. If you have some specific questions you want to see discussed, lay them out. If you just hope people will feel less alone, say so. If you're hoping to stimulate interest in an ongoing support group or some kind of project, say so.

b. Generally, a flexible structure works best. A structure and staring off point helps to create a sense of safety instead of a free for all.

c. The "step up, step back" model is very effective in helping the group establish a dynamic where the folks who are comfortable speaking up create space for those who are less comfortable. Make it clear at the beginning of the event that people are welcome to step up when it's appropriate, and should be aware of the times when they need to step back and make room for others to participate.

Courage is a joyful thing. Coming together in defiance of this culture that would have us sit alone and feel alienated, and building alternatives is a joyful thing. Awareness of that joy and enthusiasm is infectious. We should be infecting each other with this stuff. In this culture it's almost uncool to be joyful and excitable. We need to be willing to risk not being cool.

a. It is extremely effective if the people who are facilitating the event are willing to share something about their personal stake in what's being discussed. If the event is a workshop with specific presenters or a night of sharing stories, it makes a huge difference if the people facilitating are courageous and honest enough to tell stories about their personal struggles right from the very beginning. One person's realness can often inspire vulnerability and authenticity. If the event is aimed more towards a general topic like suicide prevention or if it's a night to discuss reading or watch a movie, we still recommend that the facilitators talk about why they are drawn to these issues, how these issues affect their lives, and why they think we should all be talking about this.

b. Introduce whatever the catalyst for discussion is going to be, whether this is a presentation, a movie, or a grandiose agenda about how we want to change the world. Start talking!

More from Ashley:

Things to keep in mind for general facilitation:

a. Make sure everyone who wants to gets a chance to speak.

b. Try not to let any one person take up a ton of time and space. This is really important. People can get soured on an event or a group if one annoying person is allowed to run on forever. Set clear, tactful boundaries and don't back down.

c. Periodically check in with the group's energy level. Do people need to take a break? Are people focused? If conversation is lagging, pose good questions or tell a pertinent story. Be prepared to fill in empty space. If it feels appropriate, get everyone to move around and stretch a little or something.

Closing up

a. If you are trying to generate ongoing discussions, make this clear again and ask for contact info again. Tell people that they will hear from you within the next few days and follow up. If you already know where the next meeting will be, announce this.

b. If you have literature or info to distribute, be sure to mention it.

c. Thank everyone for participating.

Below, Ashley has written about the events that have worked for The Icarus Project. Feel free to take these experiences as jumping off points for your own.

We've experimented with several kinds of events. The one we've done most often is that Sascha and I go into a space and make a presentation, and then we get the group involved in asking us questions and eventually they feel comfortable enough to start talking to each other. The format is usually something like this:

First we introduce ourselves and talk about what The Icarus Project is and why it got started. We explain what specific gaps we intend for it to fill by re-conceiving mental illness, and introduce a couple of concrete concepts and ideas. Then we talk about what it is that we want to talk about with the group, such as: What topics aren't being discussed in our communities that we want to see discussed? What are people struggling with and how can we find better ways to talk about it? We explain how The Icarus Project is plugging in and creating space for these dialogues to happen.

Then we each tell a piece of our own personal stories. This part is really important. It has become very clear that if we don't tell our personal stories, people are a lot less likely to contribute their own stories. But if we are really honest about what we've struggled with and how we understand it, people seem to feel real connections to us and start airing the things that they are usually too afraid to say. One of the most powerful things about the work we're doing is that it helps people feel less alone. It means so much to people to hear someone talk about something they've always experienced in silence, like being super depressed or hearing voices or not knowing what the hell to do when someone they love deeply is losing their mind. People have that moment of "Wow, I've been there too. I resonate. I relate. I could actually share that here." It usually really gets things going.

Third, we usually raise a few questions related to the treatment and understanding of mental health issues within the particularly skewed social and political framework that we inhabit. We throw out some ideas about different cultural ways to understand "mental illness," and ask what it means to be called crazy in a crazy world. We try to tie in our personal struggles to the larger global distress.

Then we open the space up for questions. There are almost always a lot of them.

It seems to me that this format works well when the people presenting have given a lot of thought to the topics they're going to discuss. It helps for the facilitators to have a lot of self-confidence about speaking in public, and to be people who are willing to be really personal and create a welcoming space.

Another kind of event we've done is a sort of open mic/story swap where people get together and speak out about what they've experienced. This one is participatorier and rests less on the shoulders and personality of "presenters," but can be tricky if you don't set up a good space and facilitate well. The last time we did an event like this was at Bluestockings, a radical activist bookstore in NYC. We opened up the space up by talking about how important language is and how much it can change the world just to speak honestly about what we experience. We talked about the "Bipolar World" article that Sascha wrote about his personal experience as a really interesting dude with a crazy brain. That article opened up a huge can of worms and started this whole project that is changing the world. Then we each told a little piece of our personal struggles with mental health problems. We both made a real effort to tell our stories in ways that lots of people could relate to, emphasizing how we always felt different, how hard it is to be so much more sensitive than other people but how this is also a blessing. We articulated how hard it is to get sent to interface with the mental health system and know you have a problem but you hate the way they go about things. You could see little bells of recognition going off in people's eyes all across the room. It encouraged someone else to speak out and tell her story in terms of being really sensitive and trying to make sense of things, and this got all these other people talking. It turned into a really beautiful night.

I think the key is that the people who open the space need to courageously open up about how it feels to exist in this world.

Another way to go about things is to put together a panel on a specific topic. We participated in a panel at Hampshire college called MADNESS AND LIBERATION: A Community Dialogue on Alternative Views of "Mental Illness." The organizers of this event got together 5 people who all felt very comfortable speaking in public about their struggles with mental health, but who came from different perspectives about things like psych drugs and spirituality. They gave each of us 10 minutes to talk about our personal experiences and our views on "mental illness." Then the audience asked us questions. While this sounds kind of formal and weird, it was also a really good way to bring together somewhat disparate viewpoints and provide a forum where people who didn't feel comfortable talking could just listen, and people who wanted to engage had lots of stimulating material to respond to.

Some of the guidelines that you use may come from all the ideas in this section. Some of the guidelines that work for you and your events will probably come to you while you're planning the event or hanging flyers or facilitating a discussion.

One of the things we have going for us right now is the excitement in knowing there are people all over the world experimenting with these Icarus groups"”remember that"”remind people that they are part of a budding, young movement that's changing the world.

Coming together is the first step in changing the world that we live in. We can do things in groups that we just can't do alone.