My name is Paul Acker. I’m the Senior Policy Advisor at Advocacy Unlimited. At the time I came to the agency I had over 10 years’ experience working in the mental health system, including being a part of advocacy organizations like Keep the Promise.
As a person who’s had contact with the mental health system since childhood, I have seen what works, what doesn’t, and what is just outright harmful to the people who seek help. I have seen the over pathologizing of– as Eleanor Longden says– sane responses to insane circumstances. I have seen a system that does not challenge itself, does not look at itself and doesn’t question their role as an institution in society. But this may be a topic for a different discussion.
Through the course of my life it seems that every human emotion has somehow been a symptom to what was going on with me. I was either too happy, too sad, too angry, too fearful or completely lacked insight. At no time were my emotions made to feel a part of the human emotional spectrum. I have had “experts” ask me what the answer is to my problem, and I have always felt that they saw the problem as “in” me.
I know for myself, today, what works are the three essential connections that everyone needs to maintain some balance. Connection to self, connection to others, and connection to nature. These three connections help me steady my ship in difficult times and gives me a chance of getting through those rough times safer. Since developing a sense that made everything I feel somehow a symptom of an illness, I have learned to appreciate a wider range of emotion. That is essential for us to be complete humans. In fact, I do not see my goal is to be always happy but to be able to experience the emotions that I have without them wreaking havoc and devastation at my life.
As I reframe how I look at the system, I think we really need to look at the power of connection to one another. The ability for communities to heal and support. To start looking at one another as supports instead of outsourcing it do a system. It starts with us.
There has been a massive increase in people seeking mental health and addiction services since the 90s, to the point where it could be called an epidemic (as Robert Whittaker points out in Anatomy of an Epidemic). To me I feel that these people are the canaries in the coal mine telling us that we’ve created a society that does not support human existence the way that it should. Instead of looking at the major problems in society, we are told that everything is held within the single person, that they are ill. We see quotes up to 26% of the American population can have a mental health diagnosis in a given year, yet as a society we seem to be okay with that. If a gardener had seen 26% of their garden turn ill, I would hope the gardener would look at what is going on beyond the plant and look at the environment. We must do the same in our environment.