Lately, Richard Whitman has been on the road, sharing the story of his experience with mental illness and his long journey toward recovery. As a member of the newly launched Vail Place Speakers Bureau, he is one of an enthusiastic group of clubhouse members who have volunteered to go out into the community and talk about the Twin Cities-based nonprofit’s positive impact on their lives.
“The Speakers Bureau helps people understand what Vail Place is and what it does,” Whitman said. “It also just helps put Vail on the map for people in the larger community. It’s very important to get people to learn about Vail Place and what we do here: This place has been very restorative for me and for many other people. It’s helped me with my recovery.”
A community center and advocacy organization for people with serious and persistent mental illness, Vail Place is often considered “the best-kept secret in the Twin Cities mental health community,” said Seana Fern, Vail Place general fund and event manager.
Though Vail Place representatives have been speaking to groups about the organization for years, the Speakers Bureau was only officially launched this month.
Fern explained that members and staff agreed that in a time of increasing awareness about mental illness, they wanted to let even more people know about the clubhouse model and the positive impact it has on the lives of its members. They decided to form the bureau in the interest of increasing the organization’s visibility.
Named after Minnesota mental-health pioneer Dr. David Vail, Vail Place was founded in 1981 in Hopkins and 1988 in Minneapolis. Vail operates under the clubhouse model of psychosocial rehabilitation, which strives to empower people with mental illness to take charge of their own lives through meaningful work. Clubhouse members — individuals diagnosed with significant mental illness like bipolar disorder, serious depression or schizophrenia — work in collaboration with paid staff members to operate and run the clubhouse.
“Our model is so unique,” Fern said. “When people hear about what we do and how we provide services for members, they’re excited to have us come and tell our story. We like to get the word out, because we think that what we do here is so important.”
Advocacy through personal history
In her last job, Fern directed a speakers bureau in a California nonprofit. She discovered that public speaking was a powerful way to bring her organization’s story to the general public. She wants to do the same for Vail, sharing the nonprofit’s history of successful outcomes for members with an audience that could benefit from hearing hear good news about mental illness.
“I have a passion about helping people frame their stories and use them to empower themselves and others,” Fern said. The Vail Place Speakers Bureau’s 15-20 active member-participants are committed to “sharing their personal stories to empower others and to break down stigma,” Fern said. “Our members are the best ambassadors for what we do here.”
Organizations and groups interested in learning more about Vail Place and its unique approach to mental health recovery can now contact Fern to schedule a Speakers Bureau visit. Each speaker brings specific skills and stories to the table, she said: The presentations are geared to meet the needs of the audience.
If the group is asked to speak to a classroom of high school students, for instance, “Our speakers might be members who started to experience symptoms of mental illness when they were teenagers,” Fern said. “They can tell what that experience felt like for them and how they and others responded.”
When the Vail Place Speakers Bureau presents to a group of mental health professionals, Fern explained, “They might talk about what care and treatment works for them and what doesn’t work for them.”
Recently, Whitman was part of a group from the Vail Speakers Bureau that presented at Hennepin County Medical Center. “I spoke to a group of doctors, social workers, nurses and mental health providers,” he said. “By telling them my story, I hope that maybe someone who was listening will know somebody that has a similar problem and they’ll learn about Vail Place and how we can help them.”
Responding to unique skills
Each Speakers Bureau participant brings a unique set of skills and experience to the group, Fern said.
“Some members are really good at telling their stories and explaining their histories. Some speakers choose unique methods to share their stories. We have people who have chosen art as their way of storytelling, creating beautiful poetry, prose and songs about their mental health recovery. Sometimes we sprinkle that approach into a panel.”
While Fern feels it is important that “everyone who feels inspired to speak about their experience gets a chance to do so,” she works with Speakers Bureau participants to fine-tune their stories before going to an engagement.
Group members meet regularly to work on structuring stories for maximum impact, editing them for length and distilling them to get to the nut of the narrative. Fern also coaches participants on public speaking skills, stressing that fine-tuning a story can make it easier to repeat to others.
“Public speaking is scary in itself,” Fern said. “Our speakers are telling these raw, emotional stories to strangers. That can be stressful. I want to make sure everyone feels safe.”
Even after several practice sessions, it’s not uncommon for Speakers Bureau participants to feel uneasy when they step in front of an audience. When that happens, Fern said she offers options to help members make it through.
“One speaker was very nervous about telling her story in front of a group,” Fern said. “I asked, ‘Would it help if I prompted you with questions during the presentation?’ She said she thought that would help, and in then end she hardly needed my prompts at all.”
Whitman said he still gets nervous before his speaking engagements, but he feels that what he’s doing is so important that he can push his nerves aside.
“When I talk to groups,” he said, “I try to explain that clubhouses are not just drop-in centers. We do real work here. It is members and staff working side by side to do the work of the clubhouse, and that’s what makes it work so well.”
Road to recovery
Today Whitman is a vocal booster of Vail Place and the clubhouse model, but he readily admits that it took him a long time to get to this point. He first heard about Vail when he was being treated for his mental illness at the Minneapolis VA Hospital.
“I was in a lockdown ward there for five weeks,” Whitman said. “After that I went to a day program. When day program ended, I didn’t have anywhere to go.”
While at the VA, Whitman watched a video about clubhouse programs. “They showed a picture of Minneapolis and Vail Place,” he recalled. Whitman decided to give Vail a shot: “I realized I could go there. I did a tour and did an intake and went through orientation. It was a place to spend my days.”
Whitman’s involvement in Vail started slowly. “For the first few years, I just sat around, drank coffee and read the newspaper,” he said. “Then I got involved in the social rec programs, and I started doing some of the work of the clubhouse. That led me to where I am today.”
Meaningful involvement in Vail’s “work-ordered day” has helped Whitman structure his life, and make recovery from his mental illness possible, he said. Because he’s made such progress in his life through his connection with Vail, he now wants to spread the news to others that a diagnosis of serious mental illness doesn’t have to be a life sentence.
Being part of Vail’s Speakers Bureau felt like a good way to do that.
“The truth is one in four or five adults will be diagnosed with a mental illness in their lifetime,” Whitman said. “That’s a fact. If we can help them — and get the word out about Vail — that’s a good thing.” He hopes that if clubhouse members step forward and tell their stories of recovery, more people will want to replicate his organization’s success.
“We’d like to see more clubhouses in Minnesota,” Whitman said. “We feel that this model is restorative. It’s an evidence-based practice that’s been proven, and many people can be helped by what we do.”