They sometimes call Puerto Rico the "Island of Enchantment." With its beautiful Caribbean coral reefs and beaches, it's easy to see why. But I learned this past October that, when we're talking about mental health, island life is difficult ... not enchanted. Barely a month into my new role as DBSA president, I had the honor of visiting San Juan, Puerto Rico, for our first-ever peer specialist training in the Spanish language. (Muchas gracias to our bilingual course instructors-Jana Spalding, a DBSA-trained peer specialist from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, and David Gonzalez, founder of Recovery x-Change, a wellness management training partnership of peer specialists and providers in New York.) In my short time on the island, I was struck by the challenges faced by those living with illnesses like depression and bipolar disorder. Sun and surf are plentiful, but resources for people trying to work toward recovery are not. There are few places available for support group meetings, for example. And in Puerto Rico's mental health system, the budget is small and models of recovery are virtually nonexistent. The words "peer support" are not part of the island's vocabulary. This is slowly changing, but as is true of many Hispanic cultures, when it comes to mental health, the tendency is to keep those concerns within the family.
System and cultural barriers like these are tough and complex to address. I truly admire the courage of the participants in our training that week to take those issues on, in addition to their own very personal struggles. It turned out that we all needed courage for another reason that week, when we found ourselves in the midst of Hurricane Omar! This Category 3 storm brought a fair amount of wind and rain ... and anxiety. But we were fortunate to stay safe and continue the training.
And I was fortunate, despite Mother Nature's interruptions, to have the chance to meet with Dalimarie Pérez-Arzuaga, Puerto Rico's assistant commissioner of Mental Health and Anti-Addiction Services Administration (Administración de Servicios de Salud Mental y Contra la Adicción, ASSMCA). We talked about the ASSMCA's hope to offer more mental health services and to promote peer support and the recovery movement. Being part of this conversation was incredibly inspiring, and I'm excited to say that, in 2009, DBSA will be collaborating with ASSMCA to open six peer support centers. And we'll also be working with them to host a conference there for both consumers and providers that models the promise-and reality-of recovery!
The day I left Puerto Rico, saying good-bye to the training participants, I was brought to tears. There are so many obstacles and challenges ahead of them. But I'm encouraged to think of ways that we at DBSA can help them as they offer hope, help and support so that more people know they're not alone.
What are some of the mental health obstacles in your area, and how is your community addressing them?
Published On: December 08, 2008
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