Commentary by Anne Donahue
Almost 25 years. That’s how long it’s been since I took on the job as editor of Counterpoint. This is my final issue; I’m retiring this month.
The changes over that time in the psychiatric survivor world have been a kaleidoscope of the good and bad, of progress and setbacks.
Some moments are etched into memory:
The day that Running Deer Hunter sat in front of the Public Oversight Committee in 2000 and told them what it meant, as a psychiatric patient confined to a ward for weeks, to be able to place one’s hands into the soil and connect with the earth.
Simple, profound words that resonated. The committee was considering criteria for approval of the new inpatient units at what is now the University of Vermont Medical Center. Her words led them to include a requirement that the hospital create an outdoor area for patients. That small patch of garden exists today thanks to her words.
Her words reverberated beyond that, because today, it is considered the standard of care when designing new psychiatric inpatient units to include outdoor space. Fast forward to 2022, when another expatient described the “Walk of Shame” experienced when escorted from the emergency room to an inpatient unit by a security guard, for all the public to see. Those words led a hospital administrator to “walk in those shoes” and recognize for the first time what that must feel like. The routine use of security ended.
And sometimes, it is a picture that is worth 1,000 words. A little boy, chained at the waist and feet with handcuffs nearly slipping off his wrists because they were so much too big for him.
A photo snatched by his father, who watched in horror when sheriff’s officers shackled the 10-year-old for the trip from Rutland to the Brattleboro Retreat. He raced to a drugstore to buy a box camera and beat the sheriffs to the hospital to snap his son being escorted down the sidewalk.
He brought those pictures to Counterpoint. We contacted the Secretary of the Agency of Human Services and asked whether he wanted to be the subject of a press conference, or a cosponsor. He chose co-sponsor and announced an immediate suspension of the automatic practice of shackling for all transports, and within a year, the legislature banned the practice for both children and adults being transported to the hospital by sheriffs, unless it was essential for safety – in which case, soft restraints should be used.
Now finally, well over a decade later, that same standard has a been adopted in law for transports by local police as well.
Shocked by a commentary that a reader sent into Counterpoint several years ago, legislators saw to it that children waiting in emergency departments now get activity kits to distract and comfort them.
Each of these were the voices of a single person, but Counterpoint was there to record the moment and carry the momentum forward.
Counterpoint has recorded the frustrations of our movement for dignity and fair treatment as well, and I have lived through both the celebrations and frustrations.
The Brattleboro Retreat continues to lock off its bathrooms and to require patients to have to find a staff person to get access, despite our front-page coverage after they first initiated the degrading practice and despite our advocacy with oversight bodies.
Forced medication continues in our hospitals, as does restraint and seclusion. It was advocacy, however, that forced greater transparency in tracking when and where it happens, most recently with the addition of when it happens to patients not in the custody of the state: those who are admitted voluntarily for care.
The Department of Mental Health continues to act as though creating a consumer-led system means telling psychiatric survivors after major decisions are made, and asking for input on finishing touches such as what the color of the paint should be in a new lock-up.
Institutions continue to get funding priority over peer supports, and the Department insists on calling locked facilities “community-based” programs.
This year, for the first time ever, the Department gained legislative authority to use restraint and seclusion in a locked “residence” that will be used for forensic patients.
Despite our voices saying that the term “behavioral health” is offensive and hurtful, DMH has failed to re-title a new federal project that is being adopted in Vermont.
This spring, a legislative committee refused to remove that same term from the language of a bill, reversing years of policy that respected that request from psychiatric survivors. Coming from legislative peers who were thought to be allies, it was a deep hurt and the most traumatic experience of my years in the legislature.
Although the pressure to grow more peer programs continues to make little headway, there are symbols of major success over the past decade, like Alyssum, the peer respite in Rochester that opened in 2011 and Soteria, the peer hospital-alternative in Burlington that opened in 2015.
The Collaborative Care model – a Vermontmade version of Finland’s groundbreaking “Open Dialogue” collaboration that includes peer support – continues to grow.
A certification program for peer support staff finally seems imminent and will open the path for more positions.
Maybe one day those peer staff will finally be welcomed into emergency departments to help reassure and calm patients in crisis, in place of the “sitters” who stand guard without interacting at all.
In these 25 years, a lot has changed in the newspaper publishing world as well. When I started, I had a darkroom in my basement where I developed film, and “cut and paste” meant scissors and glue to attach articles to the sheets of paper matting that would be hand carried and driven over to the printing presses.
Now, it is all computerized, from downloading digital photos to page makeup to online transfer to the printer. Counterpoint, too, has become available online as well as in hard copy – including archived editions since 2005. It went through a major new graphic redesign in 2015 and added color pages.
I still drive the roads to every part of Vermont to place it on the newsstands at grocery stores and health clinics and laundromats and mental health centers in order to be easily accessible. I love driving that route three times a year, most especially to hear the welcoming voices saying, “Oh, great, the new Counterpoint. People have been asking when it is coming.” I’ll miss that.
I won’t stop being a voice for all of us who struggle with stigma and discrimination. I’ll continue as a citizen advocate, as well as in the legislature.
Being elected to the legislature 20 years ago as a known psychiatric survivor was a proud moment. I had battled through multiple hospitalizations and spent years recovering from memory loss from two rounds of ECT.
But I had also achieved name recognition leading Vermont Psychiatric Survivors’ role in blocking UVMMC from building its new psych inpatient units in Colchester, under the slogan, “We learned a long time ago there is no such thing as separate but equal.” The CEO went to federal prison for lying to regulators about the project.
In the early legislative sessions, I was still experiencing a lot of ups and downs, but the time already spent with Counterpoint – my first job coming off disability – had strengthened me.
One survivor who had come to Vermont to give a talk about peer support work and who had a job in a psychiatric hospital in Massachusetts joked that it was a literal case of “the inmate having the keys to the asylum.” I teased back, “well, I have the keys to the statehouse.”
I think I have made a difference in being there and have no immediate plans to retire from the legislature.
What makes me happiest as I retire from Counterpoint is in knowing that it is in good hands. It isn’t easy to find the combination of a peer who also has journalism experience, but that has appeared in the person of Brett Yates, who was a news writer who started two years ago doing freelance articles for Counterpoint and has grown in responsibilities since then.
He takes over an honorable tradition of providing news and space for commentary and arts through our pages that began 1985. We’re only a few years away from a 40 birthday!
So, as I say goodbye, it is also welcome, to a new editor, who will usher in future years of recording the aspirations, successes and disappointments as the psychiatric survivor movement continues the efforts to provide mutual support and to educate and advocate for self-determination and dignity.