Creating Our Mental Health

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Creating Our Mental Health

A Conversation w/ two Social Therapists: Hugh Polk, MD & Ann Green, Psych NP

Hugh: Ann, I’ve been leading a series of workshops having to do with issues of ‘mental health’ and ‘mental illness’ at UX, a community organization that offers free classes and workshops. We’ve titled this series “Creating Our Mental Health,” and I’ve been looking forward to talking with you about how it’s going… and what I’ve been learning and trying out.

Ann: Great! I’m so glad to see you volunteering and leading therapeutic workshops. It’s a great way to show, in practice, that we can build therapeutic environments and have therapeutic conversations outside the therapy office. How is that going?

Hugh: Well, as you know, there’s so much stigma attached to mental health issues that it’s really hard for people to talk about them openly, even with professionals, much less with friends or family. What makes it even harder is that so many people, particularly poor and working class people, have had bad experiences with helping professionals and the mental health system which is focused on testing, diagnosing, labeling and medicating them rather than empowering them to grow. I’ve been co-leading the workshops with Rachel Mickenberg, a licensed social worker and social therapist, and Jan Wootten, an East Side Institute faculty member. We wanted to create environments in which people can have new kinds of conversations that would help change their relationship to mental health — to help them come to see mental health not as something that happens to them but as something they can participate in creating. I’ve been moved at how open and honest people have been. They’re hungry for these kinds of dialogues.

Ann: Relating to people as active creators of their mental health, rather than suffering from a “mental illness,” is in-and-of-itself therapeutic. Not an easy task! It’s so ingrained in our culture and I struggle with it in my practice. People come into therapy wanting to fix their brains, their chemistry, their broken emotions. And that’s how they talk about themselves and how they talk with others. It’s hard to have people change their relationship to their mental health and how they talk about it.

Hugh: Yes, that’s exactly why Rachel and I came up with the idea of a three-session series of workshops that would bring together these two things that aren’t usually thought of as having much of a connection — creativity and mental health.

Ann: So what did that look like?

Hugh: Rachel and I started the series by calling attention to the weirdness of the title. We explained that we wanted to challenge the conventional assumption that mental health is a static condition or attribute — like having long legs or big ears — by suggesting that it’s more useful to think of it as an activity that people do together, rather than a thing that individuals have or don’t have. If we’re interested in growing, this distinction matters because we can change what we do — what we are, not so much. That started things off with a bang. The workshop participants were a very diverse bunch, ethnically and otherwise, which helped make for some rich conversations — including conversations about how we were talking.

Ann: “We can change what we do — what we are, not so much.” Hugh, that’s a pretty provocative statement! What do you mean?

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