Wednesday, December 19, 2012

How We Make Real Change

So here are just two of the many questions I’ve been sitting with since last Friday’s tragedy in Newtown, CT: What creates change- real change, the kind of change that helps us individually and collectively see what needs to be done differently and act on this knowing? What cultivates a change of heart that gives us the compassion, will and stamina to participate fully in conversations and actions that create a difference in how we live our lives and shape our communities?

Here’s what I know: hearts are changed when they are touched, opened, offered a way of connecting to another. And that happens when stories rooted in personal experience are told, when someone feels heard, when we are willing to listen deeply.

And so in this week’s blog, for the first time, I am offering a link to someone else’s story (below)- because it is a story directly related to one of the central questions that last week’s tragedy raises: How can we provide effective support, services and care for those struggling with mental illness in themselves or their families? The story doesn't answer the question, but it invites us to explore the possibilities aware of the complexity of the problem and the human suffering at stake.

Over thirty-five years ago, I went to university to study social work, focusing on psychology. I thought I was there because I wanted to help make the world a better place. This was certainly part of my motivation, but it took years for me to realize that I'd had a much more personal and primary, albeit unconscious, motive: I was there to try to make sense of my mother’s mental illness that had coloured and shaped my childhood even as it remained unacknowledged, denied and un-named.

This is the first time I have publically named this. I do so to say mental illness is not something that affects "other people." Whether it is a family member, a co-worker, a teacher or student, a friend or neighbour or us, because we are inter-dependent, we are all affected by mental illness.

There are no easy answers, and there is much we do not know. But we can start by being willing to listen to the stories of those most directly impacted, so we can imagine, build and advocate for the kinds of services and research that these stories tell us are needed. This does not preclude working on other fronts- for gun control so fewer weapons are easily available; dismantling a culture of violence in our thoughts, language, actions, communities and popular mythologies. There are infinite ways to contribute to what needs to be done- and we each need to find ways that ignite our passion for life and enliven us, because those are the ways that will be sustainable for each of us, and the road home is long.

So I ask you to listen to this story told honestly and openly by a mother trying to care for and contain a son who, at times, threatens physical violence as he struggles with a mental illness. May this and other stories open our hearts. Together, may we co-create ways to alleviate this suffering.

Oriah (c) 2012


  1. Oriah,
    Thank you for this entry today. Thank you for the link, I just read it and it broke my heart. I woke this morning to near blizzard weather, in the safety of a warm house and quiet settled neighborhood and I felt protected for a moment from the weather, from all that is out in the world. But only for a moment. Our hearts bring the world inside and we ask ourselves what can be done, how can we participate. I say a prayer that I can find a way even in my small world, and I pray for this woman and all those parents who stuggle each day. I also pray that your blog will continue to bravely face issues such as this and you will continue to find the words that help us pay attention.

    1. Thank you Brenda- it's a hard topic and yet, I do think the concern being brought to it by the recent tragedy might enable real resources to be put in place so families like the one described in the article can get the help they need. We are always connected :-)

  2. Oriah,

    Thank you for your courage to name publicly your mother's mental illness. Mental illness effects all of us...and we need to now look it squarely in the eye and talk about it. I have worked in the field for over ten years, the past five with children like "Michael". At times it is brutal...other times it is touching. The cost of care of these severely troubled teens is much as $175,000 per student per year! With conviction I can honestly say that the mental health system is "broken". I was told this several years ago by the head psychiatrist in California. He acknowledged that it would probably never get repaired or replaced. But we still need to step up to the plate with a heavy bat and address the needs of those troubled with mental illness. We need the funds from Congress and the help of everyone. This is "our" problem and we must face it. There are ways to help our troubled children and our troubled adults. Raising the consciousness level is the first step. I thank you for your part and for the article written by "Michael's" mother. It won't get better until we talk about it and then take action. Oriah, thank you for opening my heart a little bit wider.

    1. Thank you Fritz- all that you have said was the aim behind my post. There is much debate about whether or not the story told in the link is true or complete. I do not know. But what I do know is that it mirrors a reality many are living and calls for greater resources to be applied to the situation when families like this are in trouble. I do hope that this is one of the consequences of the horrible tragedy in CT.