I met Corinna when she was a member of the 1996 Olympic team. In the intervening 15 years she has had a battle with mental illness – or maybe I should say, the mental health system. This article is re-posted, with permission, from her blog, where she writes about mental illness, mental health, motivational speaking, poetry and a lot more.
I’m a lot more into statistics than poetry – Corinna and I are not much alike there – but I, too, knew Brenda Day and was shocked when she died. More recently, a young woman that used to compete against my daughter, 2004 Olympic silver medalist Claudia Heil died after jumping off a building.
Corinna makes a really important point that when we write about statistics we need to keep in mind the people those statistics represent and the people our published results will affect.
By Corinna West
I was really sick for a long time, and now I’m not. This is a story about how an encounter with mental health outcome statistics turned my life around. I am also a finalist for $12,000 from the US Olympic Committee grant to share this information, and I need your vote here for Combat Arts for Recovery.
I was on the 1996 Olympic Judo Team and worked out about four hours a day for about 6 years leading up to that. When I retired from Judo I finished my bachelors in Chemistry and starting working on a Ph.D. program in Pharmaceutical Sciences. My research project was coming up with a cancer drug that blocked telomerase, an enzyme that is only active in cancer cells. At some point I had various things coming together in my life that built into an emotional crisis. The problems included a disconnect with my creator, a marriage to a low energy spouse, lack of meaningful hobbies and social connections, pot use, and insecurity about my career path.
At that point I thought that emotional distress meant mental illness so I entered the mental health system and after a 45 minute interview I was given a diagnosis and medications. The medications made me feel worse. What was really harmful, though, was the idea that there was something wrong with me for the rest of my life and that I might end up on disability. No one told me what I could expect for mental health outcome statistics but sites like this on schizophrenia statistics said how awful things were. Also I saw everyone around me in “treatment” doing poorly and came to my own conclusions. Eventually I couldn’t pull things together and I had to leave the Ph.D. program with only a masters degree. I had a few jobs that didn’t work out in a sequence and then my marriage starting looking like it would fall apart. I thought, “I have nothing left.” and decided to take my early exit from this planet. I had heard that 15% of people with serious mental illness die by suicide and I became convinced that it would happen to me. As an Olympian, I have a lot of willpower, and when I decide to do something, it usually happens.
I have a poem about that time and how I started to find my way out, honoring one of my Olympic Judo Team training partners who didn’t make it through, Brenda Day. It’s my second most watched video on my account.
I’d been hearing about the Glore Psychiatric Museum about an hour drive from me where much of the old equipment was preserved that used to apply physical “treatment” for those of us with mental health labels. They had lobotomy tools, spinning chairs, dunk tanks, tiny boxes to lock people in, chains, and electroshock equipment. But the best thing for me was a link on their website to the National Empowerment Center.
The National Empowerment center has a list of journal articles on their website showing mental health outcome statistics that 58% of people with schizophrenia recover.
At this point, I didn’t believe that, because in my grad school I thought I had learned how to search academic literature and my studies showed about a 13% recovery rate. So I emailed the director of their organization, a doctor named Dan Fisher. Dan was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a grad student as well, back in the old days when the system would tell you outright that no one recovered. He told one of his therapists, “I’m going to get out of this hospital and go to med school and be a psychiatrist.”
The therapist said, “I’ll come to your graduation when you do.” And Dan did graduate and the therapist was there at the ceremony. Then Dan helped to found our mental health civil rights movement, and the National Empowerment Center is partly his organization.
So I emailed him and asked why he could say that 58% of people recovered when my studies were only showing 13%? His response was so great that I saved it and still have it to this day.
Quantum mental health outcome statistics email:
From: Dan Fisher
To: Corinna West
Sent: Monday, June 20, 2005 3:06 pm
Corinna, I notice that the first few studies you sent were relatively short-term compared to the results we put on our website. Also, it is very important to note that the conditions of treatment make a huge difference. Harding showed this when she compared the recovery rate in Vermont (with a positive set of expectations and programs) to Maine which had maintenance as the goal. I am going to discuss your question further with Dr. Harding, but in the meantime, don’t be overly influenced by science. Conventional science deals in statistics and aggregate results, whereas your life and mine are unique as snowflakes. We can change our world through our actions in it, and conventional science is dumb to explain that. However, quantum science can explain it. Modern science has the perspective I and most people who have recovered find much more beneficial. Modern science emphasizes the importance of our perceptions in modifying the world. We can be architects of our lives not mere passengers.
By this time I’d realized that mental health recovery was a lot of work and I wasn’t willing to do that work for a 13% chance. But I could have faith in a 58% chance for good mental health outcome statistics.
That was a key turning point for me. Another turning point was when I realized I’d have to take responsibility, that no one was going to fix me. Also I realized that my creator didn’t want me gone or it would have happened already. So I joined a support group, Recovery International. Eventually I started my own support group which led to my job as the coordinator of a call-in support line. I learned how important daily exercise was to keep my head straight, and I learned that most of my “symptoms” were coming from trauma experiences. I did several entrepreneurship training programs and started developing as an artist, and two years ago I started my own business working to improve our current mental health outcome statistics.
I am creating a social entrepreneurship, a business that helps people while also making money so that it is scalable and sustainable. I want to design a mental health system using principles from The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid by C.K. Prahalad. It should be so cheap that people in recovery can afford to pay for it themselves. I want to use peer support, volunteers, and lay people to help people that are struggling. A national cross disability rally in Washington, D.C. next week says that we save Medicaid funding by demedicalizing services like this. I also started an advocacy campaign called, “Please Cut our Budgets, We’ll Tell You How.” We can also save a ton of money by not labeling short term emotional crises as lifelong illnesses. The Open Dialogue program in Finland has such good mental health outcome statistics that many of their hospital beds are empty.
I recently went to a national conference in Boston to discuss alternatives to medication, since long-term evidence is starting to show that meds help some people, but many people with mental health labels do better off medications. One of the presenters, Suzanne Beachy, is a TEDx fellow and was a mom to someone who was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Because all the information she got was based on the medical model and fairly hopeless, both she and he gave up on recovery. The son then died in an accident while he was homeless and she undertook a year long search to find more information about the diagnoses. She finally found the mental health recovery movement, our organization of people who have come out the other side of our labels. Many of us are completely recovered, working full time, out of the mental health system, and totally off psych meds.
She said, “Everyone should know about you people. It shouldn’t be completely random who finds out there is hope beyond the medical model. We need to have a mental health outcome statistics public relations person.”
We are now on the brink of creating this program. I have linked with the Olympic Committee to fund a program where doctors prescribe exercise instead of medication for people with emotional distress. However, we need your votes to get this program funded. You can vote once per day until Sept 18 at: