For an explanation of the PeerFest Online Symposium, see this blog post. Thanks to Laura Khalil, John King, Wendy Latham, Dan Oppenheimer and Flora Releford for their willingness to take part. To learn more about PeerFest 2016, visit www.peerfest.org.
Question: A prevalent theme that has emerged during the planning process is for PeerFest to be centrally focused on PLAY, and fun. We know that play can be emotionally rejuvenative and pro-mental health. On the other hand, there is also some felt pressure on the part of the planning committee to demonstrate that it’s possible for peers to put together a highly structured event that a professional organization like the Hogg Foundation can gladly put its name on. How much of a tension is there between these two goals?
Click here for Part 1 of the conversation!
To: John, Laura, Wendy and Flora
Dan Oppenheimer here, communications manager at the foundation, and self-designated provocateur. Just wanted to add my two cents. One thing that I remember, from my experience going to Alternatives 2013, was my shock that a conference that seemed so “alternative” and countercultural in various ways was funded by the federal government. It seemed like an aberration, and it also struck me as a vulnerability. Surely if a conservative politician with an axe to grind found out what was being funded, with government money, there would be problems. My understanding, since then, is that I wasn’t totally wrong about that. That it has been an issue, and that funding for Alternatives is now chronically in doubt as a result.
I mention all this not to question the usefulness of creating alternative spaces. Obviously the foundation feels that it’s worth it, and I agree, wholeheartedly. But it does raise interesting questions, it seems to me, about the degree to which the consumer/peer movement has aligned itself with, or embraced, all sorts of other cultural or countercultural movements and ideas that aren’t necessarily implied by the basic tenets of recovery or consumer empowerment. I’m thinking of holistic healing, eastern medicine and spirituality, and just in general an embrace of what seem to me to be aesthetics and practices directly descended from the 1960s and 70s counterculture.
In one sense “play” is pretty uncontroversial, but in another sense it seems to me to be part and parcel of this much larger cultural gestalt that was tangible at Alternatives, and may be tangible at PeerFest, and that can be actively alienating to many people even as it feels comfortable and embracing to others. I’m curious about the extent to which you’all agree with me on this characterization, and if so, to what extent has it been a conscious choice? Or is it an organic extension of the experiences of the leaders of the movement? Or am I just wrong?
To: Wendy, Laura, Dan and Flora
You bring up an interesting point, Dan. I didn’t attend Alternatives 2015, but heard and saw evidence that the counterculture spirit seemed to be much in evidence. Many participants who balked at SAMHSA funding (and all the restrictions on content that created) actively used social media to create an Alternatives within Alternatives. They got the message out on Twitter and held impromptu gatherings under the “nose” of Alternatives. The counterculture becoming the establishment seems to spark a new counterculture.
To: John, Laura, Dan and Flora
Wow! I love it! I really was going to leave my love beads and fringed vest at home (but NOT the lava lamp). I would disagree that Eastern medicine, spirituality and holistic healing smack of Oat Willies. I can speak from my own experience that I have sought out these modalities as part of my recovery path. Have you ever been on several thousand milligrams of Depakote? Had your hair fall out by the handful and dealt with the very distressing intestinal disturbances (that invariably hit when I was farthest from a facility)? Believe me, gain sixty pounds in a few months and a little acupuncture, prayer and massage looks pretty good. Better than that, in my own case it worked, and I went down from a daily total of NINE different medications multiple times a day down to two. So for me, involvement with these modalities saved my life.
As for controversy, yes, I think the consumer movement creates it and that’s a good thing. Do government sponsors appreciate this kind of innovation/exploration? Not so much, as I look at my huge signature and state email address. Looking broadly, I think that any kind of challenge to a lobby block, or established paradigms brings a response, sometimes in the resounding negative. For example, the military industrial complex – not appreciative of peace marches or whistleblowers.The medical/pharmaceutical/insurance block – do they want consumers of any type taking real control over health and well-being? Let’s survey how much importance is placed on preventative programs in our healthcare system: not much.
Having said that, as a grant writer, program designer and conference developer, I am very mindful of where the money comes from and what strings are attached. When I give presentations on grant development, I always stress that before applying or receiving funds, the applicant should be very cognizant of the political orientation of the funder, their overall agenda, what the explicit or implicit expectations might be. Sometimes that means walking away from an award, or adjusting your program design to be in alignment. It takes experience to know where and how hard to push the limits. Alternatives did pay a price for pushing the envelope, but many factors could have been a part of that outcome – how much communication did the National Empowerment Center have with SAMHSA? Did they keep SAMHSA completely in the loop (Funders do not like surprises)? Maybe the program officer for the funds went from someone willing to experiment to someone much more conservative. Maybe the medical and pharmaceutical lobby complained. Maybe some Senator’s family member participated and came back a little too empowered for family culture. Who knows?
From: Dan Oppenheimer
To: John, Laura, Wendy and Flora
I think your last email, Wendy, does point us toward some of the more interesting aspects of the evolution of this conference, and the complexities of the interplay between the Hogg Foundation and the design committee.
I think it’s safe to say that we’re a pretty friendly funder when it comes to the kinds of ways in which consumers might want to be “alternative,” or just in general in terms of our willingness to hand over as much power as we have to the committee to design this conference. That said, we’re still a pretty traditional philanthropic organization in a lot of ways. Our executive director is a psychiatrist. Our director of planning and programs is a lawyer. We’re based at a flagship public university, and therefore in a very concrete way part of the establishment.
So there must be an intrinsic tension between these establishment aspects of who we are and the mandate of PeerFest to be a conference by and for peers. Right?
To: John, Laura, Dan and Flora
My feeling is that you may be seeking an admission of conflict from me as a consumer, that my participating/planning an event such as this should create some sort of dissonance based on your assumption that my values as a consumer include autonomy over my decisions to participate in activities that may be outside traditional mental health practices, or that I should be uncomfortable or perhaps somehow intimidated to interact with the “Establishment”. So if I’m not in conflict then perhaps there exists an hypocrisy?
My experience is that consumer participation in health is changing all across various disciplines. Harvard Medical School pioneered mind body medicine by establishing a world famous mindfulness program, that has also participated on the influence of prayer on surgical outcomes. It has been my observation that the Hogg Foundation has made a clear decision to innovate and accept the risk of whatever outcome may occur. To me, recovery means balance, no extremes. I use a psychiatrist as well as acupuncture. There is strong science linking meditation practice and improved health. I guess I’m saying that, in order to respond to a strengthening consumer voice,”Establishment” can shut it down, suppress it, or ignore it. Or “Establishment” can explore new paradigms in smaller steps, to seek understanding and engagement, in keeping with systems change theory. It seems that is what is happening here, and I think it’s amazing. I am extremely grateful for the Hogg Foundation and Tammy for opening a space for this interplay to occur. The consumers/ individuals with lived experience in Texas are incredibly fortunate.