Rebellious Communication and Radical Vulnerability: The new wave of mental health advocacy

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Rebellious Communication and Radical Vulnerability: The new wave of mental health advocacy

If you want to understand us, listen to what we are not allowed to say.

This mantra on “rebellious”1) communication, inspired by Filipino political prisoners decrying their country’s martial law in the 1970s, can resonate in any instance where one’s voice is taken away or limited. Those living with mental illness or working in mental health frequently wrestle with how to convey the unsaid – because of stigma, societal pressure, inner doubts and fears, or at times, the law itself.

The notion that we are “allowed” to discuss mental wellness is a new one. For many still, such discussions can seem unnatural or uncomfortable – even radical. Fortunately, the “rebellion” against mental health stigma has grown, and grown loudly. More and more advocates, including those living with mental illness, bravely share their experiences over a diversity of forums: From the stage to the courtroom; in family conversations or in front of thousands on Capitol Hill; and, in May 2016, throughout the workshops and discussions at the California Mental Health Advocates For Children and Youth Conference (CMHACY).

Understanding a subject that has long been silenced can be achieved through rebellious, judgment-free communication. For the past 36 years, stakeholders have gathered at CMHACY to “educate, convene, and support individuals and organizations” around youth and family mental health. As part of the conference Youth In Mind (YIM), a nonprofit youth-led organization, hosts a Youth Leadership Academy to “inspire youth engagement and leadership development within mental health systems.”

At this year’s CMHACY, “rebellious” communication around mental health echoed in interactions at their most atomic: Smiles from exhausted but uplifted participants following voluminous sessions on mental health policy; through tired but triumphant YIM volunteers letting their feet do the talking at the conference’s closing dance party; in co-organizer Shawn Davis (Programs and Outreach Assistant, Youth in Mind) wordlessly expressing his thoughts during a group icebreaker simply by pointing to his tattoo – “resilience.”

All of these powerful, effective moments around wellness were conveyed through simple, radical vulnerability.

As a first-time participant, I am leaving CMHACY encouraged by the promise of continued collaboration, and with a clear idea of why folks return again and again. The palpable, upbeat energy of CMHACY is a rejuvenating departure from work around the mental health system that can often become contentious and draining. So, as we return to our cubicles and laptops, what have we learned, and how can we keep rebellious communication around mental health going? When we face criticism, how can we draw power from vulnerability and keep on advocating?

Eco-chef, food justice advocate, and author Bryant Terry hosted a cooking demonstration at 2016 CMHACY.

Eco-chef, food justice advocate, and author Bryant Terry hosted a cooking demonstration at 2016 CMHACY.

At his Youth Leadership Academy workshop on how to achieve wellness through food justice, eco-chef and author Bryant Terry suggested looking to the past as we shape our future. In his mission to bring communities nutrition and equity through what they eat, Terry draws inspiration from KRS-One’s 1990s take on the food industry (“Beef”) and childhood memories from his family’s farm. Similarly, at Young Minds’ workshop on collaboration co-presented with the California Youth Connection and the National Center for Youth Law, our speakers reflected on strategies gained from uniting to produce California’s first-ever Foster Youth Mental Health Bill of Rights.

At Young Minds’ 2016 CMHACY workshop on occupational wellness, participants reflected on their journey as advocates, then expressed that journey by creating individual art pieces. Occupational wellness is defined as “the ability to achieve a balance between work and leisure time, addressing workplace stress and building relationships with co-workers.”

At Young Minds’ Youth Leadership Academy workshop on occupational wellness, participants reflected on their journey as advocates, then expressed that journey by creating individual art pieces. Occupational wellness is defined as “the ability to achieve a balance between work and leisure time, addressing workplace stress and building relationships with co-workers.”

There is, no doubt, wisdom in looking back. And yet, the past can bring renewed pain, particularly for many who live with and advocate around mental illness. Throughout the week at CMHACY, I volunteered with a colleague who poured his heart into the present – making sure workshops ran smoothly, assisting attendees in every capacity – although he was surrounded by memories of trauma. “I found out that I lost my brother in this very spot, three years ago,” he shared. “This is my first time back at CMHACY since his death.” At this, my heart soared and broke for his dedication. I felt love for him and so many advocates who, fully realizing the gravity of their work, place self-care and sleep aside without hesitation.

If you want to understand us, listen to what we are not allowed to say.

Whether maintaining energy to advocate for yourself or others, the directive seems to remain the same: Stop, reflect, and take a long breath. Honor the time to pause so that you can remember why you do what you do. Why? Because meditation rocks. And, because rebellious, vulnerable communication can be exhausting—No good advocacy exists without judgment and criticism, so rest up to fight on.

In continuing the momentum of CMHACY and growing your advocate’s voice, gain energy and healing from what you love. Then, practice that love in the present – channeling the unconditional kindness it takes to set up a wellness workshop even while breaking down, and with the joyful buoyancy of a young conference attendee rocking out to the “Cupid Shuffle” at the end of an intense and vital week.

See you all next year’s CMHACY!

Keep on dancing.

1)I would like to express gratitude for the courageous advocates who inspired this post: The staff and volunteers of Youth in Mind, who have organized and hosted CMHACY’s youth-driven track for over 13 years; human rights attorney Gerald López, who champions “Rebellious Lawyering” to solve problems and unite communities; and Professors Joi Barrios and Emily Lawsin, who first opened my spirit to radical communication.

About the Author:

Aisa Villarosa
Aisa Villarosa is an Associate Attorney at Young Minds Advocacy who previously represented children in Michigan’s dependency and juvenile justice systems. A lover of painting and poetry, Aisa strives to use creativity in her advocacy and community engagement around youth mental health.