"Recovery is Possible" says Peer Group

Sept. 20--It's always darkest when the lights go out but, with some time and effort, it is possible to change your light bulb.

Members of VOCAL, a Charlottesville-based nonprofit peer initiative, believe that whether people are sinking in depression or swimming through psychosis, those suffering through mental illness can come out not only whole and healed, but better.

"When people come out of mental illness, when they recover, they can see their lives in a very different way. It can be like a spiritual journey from being one person to another," said Brian Parrish, VOCAL's executive director.

VOCAL is the Virginia Organization of Consumers Asserting Leadership. Created in 2001, it is made up of people in recovery from mental health issues and mental illness and people who provide peer support for others in recovery and treatment. They're also working to change the way health providers view and treat illnesses.

The organization receives backing from the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation and BAMA Works, the Dave Matthews Band-led community foundation. It's also received federal grants for various projects, including publishing a compendium of successful journeys through the madness, beauty and mystery of what VOCAL calls "extreme mental states."

The book, "Firewalkers," presents the stories of seven Virginians who went through extended periods of mental illnesses and how they survived, even thrived.

The book is honest, blunt and straightforward. It's also been adapted for use in psychology and mental health classrooms at James Madison University and at Region Ten Community Services Board, the area's state-funded mental health service

"We've had a big response from people in the field and from family members because you don't often hear about mental illness in terms of recovery," said Malaina Poore, executive assistant at VOCAL and the project coordinator for "Firewalkers." "It gives people hope in a very practical way. They can discuss things that have helped others with their journey, whether it's medication, meditation, yoga or church."

The book lays lives bare, and the stories can be difficult to read.

"We were prepared to take a lot of flak because people were very honest about their lives," Ms. Poore said. "The reaction has really been positive."

Ms. Moore said mental health professionals have been receptive not only to the book but to VOCAL. The fact that volunteers, counselors and organization officials have walked through the fire of recovery helps those in the midst of illness and their family members. That's fine, because VOCAL hopes to change perceptions.

"Start with the numbers: Studies show that about 26 percent of the adult population suffers from serious mental illness every year," Mr. Parrish said. "We're not talking about getting the blues for a couple of days and getting over it; we're talking about a significant disruption that upsets their daily lives."

A significant disruption in life is usually considered a bad thing, but Mr. Parrish said the experience can make someone stronger.

"I hear people saying that, if they could go back and do their life over without the [illness], they would just go ahead and do it the very same way. For some, it was hard, but where they're at when they get through it makes it worth it."

VOCAL members recognize that it's not an easy thing to do and the effort to survive may not always be successful. It's just that they believe in the hope that it can happen and celebrating when it does.

"Going through [mental illness] is not all peaches and cream. It can be a hard experience and a long road and a lot of us don't make it through it," Mr. Parrish said. "On the other hand, it's not a life sentence. People do recover from it. You don't have to be on medication your entire life. People survive and, any time you survive that kind of experience, it leads to wisdom."