North American Symposium on Empowerment

I arrived in Montreal around suppertime on November 3nd, a small town girl dazzled by the big city lights, wondering what what the North American Symposium on Empowerment was all about. As I prowled around the next day with my tape recorder in hand, I sought out someone to interview. The first person I talked to was Sebastian Maltais, a communication agent for the symposium. “What do you hope to achieve with this conference?” I quizzed. He replied, “We want to promote the values of empowerment … have people share their experiences. “How many people are here?” I asked. “About 400.” Sebastian replied. That night a lavish banquet was held and the guest of honor was the Minister of Health and Social Services for Quebec, who promised more help for psychiatric survivors.

On Monday the talk in the plenary session centered around resisting social control. Later, I met Carole Hayes Collier, an activist from New York, at a workshop titled, “Confinement: My Freedom Within 4 Walls”. I interviewed Mrs. Hayes in her hotel room and asked her what she was doing in Montreal. (I came here) to talk about the issues affecting our lives today. To do some of my own spiritual healing, which I find happens to me when I come to Montreal with psychiatric survivors. I also have an opportunity to find out what is happening internationally. I have a personal philosophy that paranoia is ‘heightened awareness’ and I believe that the more I understand, the more I know I understand how to make change in the system. It’s refreshing in Montreal, because people speak from a very deep values base, and I can talk about ethics and what is happening worldwide.” When I asked Mrs. Collier her definition of empowerment, she responded, “The state in which I can choose my own destiny, I can make my own mistakes, I can decide what is useful to me and what is not, and have the power to make sure that I don’t have anything happen to me that I don’t choose to happen.” ” But what if someone is suicidal, should they be forced to get help?” Mrs. Collier replied, “The force in the help set me back many years in my recovery. When I was open to having help-and I went looking for help-I found that the help was less than helpful. The use of force did set me back, because I was not living my own life. I was in compliance with what they (the mental health care system) made me do. As a human being I want to have a full, rich life and that is complete with mistakes.”

Talking with Mrs. Collier I was introduced to the concept of “warm lines” as opposed to hot lines. She explained, “I’ve worked on ‘hope lines’ or ‘warm lines’ – like a crisis line. One of the principles that successful lines have worked on is if the person said that they wanted to be talking about feeling suicidal they have the right to talk about that, they have the right to do anything short of actually dying – holding a gun, a bottle of pills …They still operate on the principle that the person is choosing some help.” The essential difference between a ‘warm line’ and a hot line is that the latter is connected to the police whereas the former is not. On a warm line people just listen to you.

Another facinating concept that Mrs. Collier described to me was the “advanced directive” which is putting in writing how you want to be handled when incapicated and who you want to speak on your behalf. She emphasized that recovery requires networking with friends, and other psychiatric survivors. The advanced directive tries to eliminate incarceration in hospital and has the goal of getting the survival through a crisis without the use of force.

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