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The Self-Help Lens

Looking Through The Self-Help Lens

What fails to be understood time and time again by people on the outside of the experience of having a psychiatric label, is that the experience of being a person who has mood swings, fear, voices and visions ("Person Who") has made me culturally distinct.

Opportunities for coming together, like internet discussion lists and face-to-face groups, dedicated to understanding this experience among peers, have provided for me the best forum for making meaning of the experience. Cross-diagnosis self-help in any form has been a vehicle for putting words around these unique experiences, and has helped define for me the parameters for a whole new cultural perspective.

It has been my experience that "Person Who", or peer, culture is very different from what conventional wisdom holds to be "the norm". In peer, or mutual support, culture an acute self-awareness is valued, rather than dismissed as navel-gazing. In mutual support culture, unmasking and showing one's true self is valued, rather than reviled and discouraged. In mutual support culture, we are bound together by experiences that, while they are highly individual, have more in common than not.

I am convinced at this point that our labels are dangerous, not only to us as individuals but as a collective cultural entity. They serve to keep us divided, breaking down a universal experience among peers into tiny camps of this or that - isolated by category. While diagnostics, done correctly, may be helpful to begin the journey of understanding and organizing a set of experiences, they serve no purpose at all when it comes to actually living with the label.

The beauty of the self-help approach for me is that this is how I've managed to make sense of my life - in the context of a diverse culture comprised of people who have also made/are making a similar journey. It is my belief that psychiatric self-help needs to be pushed along to the next level in its evolution; it needs to do exactly what it is demanding of the larger mental health system. Self-help must become more inclusive.

Groups that focus on a specific "disorder" are of limited use when it comes to the larger work of developing a consensus voice; a sorely needed voice for the work of improving and developing caring and competent systems.

Cross-diagnosis self-help has the capacity to provide a different lens through which unique and diverse experiences can be understood. This cultural perspective includes the notion that the experience of mood swings, fears, voices and visions has value in other social contexts. Visioners and waking dreamers, seers and shamen hold places of honor in different cultural systems and in different times. When I am called upon to train providers and outsiders in consumer perspectives on the mental health system, I always start by telling the truth.

And the truth is that if we lived in a different time (or perhaps a different place) those in attendance would be bringing me chickens, asking for my advice, and following it!