Finding Our Voice! Ending The Silence
by Mary Ellen Copeland

Speak out! Speak out! Speak out! If I said this a million times it would not be too much. I have been doing mental health recovery education for 12 years now. Through that time I have maintained my focus on simple, safe, non-invasive self-help strategies and skills that will help people to feel better. While doing this work I have held the vision that the mental health system would come to appreciate that people can recover and would work with people to assist them in their recovery. Care providers would come to realize that each person must be in charge of and responsible for their own recovery, that they would see the value of validating a person's experience and of peer support. They would support empowerment, personal responsibility, self-advocacy and education for every person.. And, in fact, some of this has come to pass, in places where wonderful work is being done and progress is being made. There are hundreds of recovery educators, many of whom have been users of services, who are teaching others how to develop Wellness Recovery Action Plans and showing them that there are choices they can make in their lives. Mental health commissioners and systems are changing their focus to recovery. Hard working health care providers are joining the ranks of people who understand that these symptoms are not the "end of the road" but are part of the process. Care providers, family members and friends rejoice in our progress.. But there are still many people who are being forced or coerced into treatments and lifestyles that are not their choice. 

Many people continue to be repressed and stigmatized. Many are being physically and emotionally abused. Many are told they have a medical illness or a "broken brain" and then are punished for their symptoms--symptoms which are often extremely painful and terrifying. And many people stop fighting and end their lives.. Meanwhile, many of us remain silent. Perhaps we have been taught to be silent, taught that we have nothing of value to say and that we must let others determine the course of our lives. We may have been taught or feel that those of us who experience psychiatric symptoms are incapable of rational thinking and of speaking out. We may remain silent because we are part of a minority and our views have often been ignored. Some of us may even fear retribution, such as diminishing support and services, separation from our families, homelessness, or worse if we don't do as we are told. Maybe we just don't know what to do or how to begin. Sometimes it's just easier to look the other way and pretend it isn't happening.. So while I continue to teach about common sense recovery systems that have been overlooked far too long, in this newsletter, in my writings and presentations, you will now hear a stronger voice. A voice that says we must stop this injustice now. We must all speak out--and that includes me.. Many of you are already speaking out. But many more voices are needed. Those of you who can speak from experience but have lost your voice, your voice is important. If you feel like you never had a voice, try using it. The more you use it the easier it is. In order for injustice to be overcome it takes many voices. And the voices we most need to hear are from those of us who have been silenced. It is the only way we can create the change that must happen--many voices speaking as one..

How Do You Find Your Voice??

1. Learn your rights! A list of basic human rights was published in issue

1.2 of this newsletter. These rights include the kinds of things most people take for granted, such as the right to change your mind, to follow your own values and standards, to say no to anything when you feel you are not ready or it is unsafe or it violates your values, to determine your own priorities, to meet your own needs for personal space and time, to decide on your own treatment, to be playful and frivolous, to be in a non-abusive environment, to have the friends of your choice, and to be treated with dignity and respect. If you would like a copy of these rights, please contact the office to request back issue 1.2.

2. Begin practicing using your voice in small ways that feel safe to you. It might be telling someone that you won't give them a cigarette or buy them a beer, that you will do the dishes or take your shower when you want to, that you will decorate your room the way you want it, that "your" treatment plan must reflect your goals and dreams, that if you didn't develop it it is not your treatment plan, that you will decide what you will put in your mouth or do to your body, that you will choose your own friends.

3. When you feel that you have had enough practice, think about something "bigger" in your life that you want and need to address. It might be insisting on a change in medication from one that causes side effects that are making you miserable. It might be finding good housing or getting work that uses your special skills and talents. Lack of self-esteem and fear of authority may have kept you from addressing some issues in the past. Remember, you are as important and special, and probably as smart, as anyone else--even the people who represent authority figures in your life. Regain a strong sense of yourself and the great person you are by 1) writing a paper that lists all your positive attributes, strengths and accomplishments, and reading it over and over, 2) asking people who like you, people that you trust, to make a list of your strengths that you can read whenever you have a chance, 3) taking very good care of yourself, and, 4) working toward meeting your goals and dreams. You deserve the very best that life has to offer! 

4. Talk with your supporters about what you would like to do--what change you would like to create in your life or in the world. Plan a strategy, and revise it as you learn more. If your strategy includes talking with an "authority figure" that you feel may be rude or threatening, take a supporter along with you. Then ask for what you want and need. If you are told that you can't have it, tell them again. Keep telling them. If necessary, see someone else. But don't stop until your voice is heard and you get what you need and want for yourself.

5. When you have had some practice with the previous steps, you may feel ready to speak out about more universal mental health issues, like the use of isolation and restraints, abuse, forced treatment, poor treatment, incarceration and keeping people tied into the system who don't need to be there. Get together with others who are working for this cause. You may need to set up meetings and gather people together. If so, please do it. You can work together to strategize as a group about how you will meet this need. Taking action together is very empowering. Visit the National Protection and Advocacy web site at if you feel your rights are being violated or for more information.. Whenever you feel comfortable, start sending e-mails, letters, phoning and meeting with public officials and others who have the ability to facilitate much needed system change. David Oaks, Director of Support Coalition International, can put you on an e-mail list so that you will be advised of issues related to psychiatric injustice that demand response. Then you can join thousands of others who have responded to this need and ended injustice for many. His contact information is:

David Oaks, 
454 Willamette, Suite 216, (PO Box 11284)) 
Eugene, OR 97440, USA.
Toll free: 1-877-MAD-PRIDE 
Web address: 
General info:
Phone: 541-345-9106. Fax: 541-345-3737.

Keep In Mind As you take up this challenge to speak out, you are certain to meet obstacles. Don't let them cause you to back away. With our collective courage, strength and persistence, we can surmount these obstacles and create a system that works for everyone.

Guidelines For Speaking Out

* Educate yourself about the issues. Read. Explore the internet. Go to meetings. Know the issue. Decide how you feel. Then speak out where you will be heard--contact key officials, go to board meetings, write letters to the editor, call in on talk shows, send e-mails.

* It takes many people to create change, not just one very strong individual. Beware of people who want to be the only one in charge or the only one speaking out. Circumvent them as kindly as possible. * Treat others with dignity, compassion and respect, listening to their views and challenging them when necessary..Insist that others treat you well, even when you are saying things that they don't want to hear.

* Stay as calm as possible when speaking out. If you "lose your cool" you will be accused of being "just another mental patient." You can let out your frustration when you are alone or with good friends.

* As you find your voice, you may be tempted to talk too much--to go on and on and on. This is never a good idea. If you do this, you silence the voices of others who also need to be heard. Strongly and briefly make your point. Then give others their chance to speak. Again, it is the voices of many, not just one, that will make the difference!