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Because early-bird registration for Rawness of Remembering ends this week — on September 15! — I’d like to encourage those of you who have been planning on, or thinking about, signing up to do it before the early-bird period ends. Not only will it ensure that you secure a spot in a class with limited enrollment, but you’ll also be contributing to SOLVE, a program created by the Mental Health Association of San Francisco. Up till the 15th, 10% of proceeds from registration will be going to this phenomenal program. Phenomenal? As LeVar Burton would say, Don’t take my word for it.

Today, I’m truly excited to be sharing an interview with Terri Byrne, the coordinator of SOLVE. I first spoke to her as a nervous applicant for the speakers’ bureau, deep in the heart of downtown San Francisco; she was warm and settled my nerves immediately.

How was the SOLVE program started?

solve-pullquote1Stigma is a barrier for many people seeking treatment for mental health conditions.

Stigma is the reason many people don’t talk about their personal experiences with mental health challenges. Stigma is discrimination. People with mental health challenges are often times discriminated against because of negative and incorrect beliefs that society has.

In November 2004, the passage of Proposition 63 (now known as the Mental Health Services Act, or MHSA) provided the first opportunity in many years for the California Department of Mental Health (DMH) to provide increased funding, personnel and other resources to support county mental health programs. The Act addresses a broad continuum of prevention, early intervention and service needs and the necessary infrastructure, technology and training elements that will effectively support this system.

SOLVE was created as a prevention and early intervention program to address the issue of stigma and raise awareness in our community about mental health, mental illness, and effective treatment and support for the people of San Francisco. Mental Health Association of San Francisco contracts with Community Behavioral Health Services of San Francisco to provide funding for the SOLVE Program.

How did you become involved in the program?

I found this position on Craigslist in March of 2012. When I saw the title, STIGMA REDUCTION PROGRAM COORDINATOR — well, I couldn’t believe my eyes!  I’ve been working in the mental health field for many, many years. To have a full-time job that would involve working to educate the public about mental health conditions and the stigma surrounding it — well, it seemed too good to be true.

I did get the job (obviously), which I still consider the best job I have ever had, and I’ve had a lot of great jobs! I’ve also been able to reduce my own self-stigma by talking about my own mental health challenges openly now; I’ve been a mental health professional working in the field, which has not been a “friendly” place to disclose these challenges.

When you meet new folks who don’t know what SOLVE does, what do you tell them? 

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I begin by explaining that SOLVE stands for Sharing Our Lives, Voices and Experiences and that it is a stigma elimination program. SOLVE trains people in the community who have been living with mental health challenges to share their personal experiences. By telling our stories, we, the peer educators, help to reduce the social barriers that prevent people from obtaining treatment. The Surgeon General estimates that one in four people are affected by mental illness, and that peer education and support effectively corrects misinformation.

I talk about how the SOLVE Speakers’ Bureau consists of an array of people from the Bay Area who have had challenges in their lives with mental health conditions and who come forward to talk openly about these experiences by sharing their stories of struggle, hope and triumph with others.

I share our mission: the mission of SOLVE is to decrease the fear, shame and isolation of those with mental health challenges and conditions through peer education. SOLVE aims to raise awareness of the community on issues surrounding mental health, as well as work to erase the prejudice and discrimination of people living with mental health challenges.

I then direct people to our website for more information: http://www.mentalhealthsf.org/programs/solve/ 

Do you have a favorite story about SOLVE?

Too many favorites, but I’ll try to narrow it down to a few! One of my favorite places to do presentations is at the high schools. Students are mesmerized by the peer educators. After each presentation, we ask audiences to fill out our evaluations, which are anonymous. The responses are so moving. Several will state that they had never heard anyone talk openly about their issues, and how now they might go seek help for themselves or a friend.

solve-pullquote3I love watching new peer educators begin to grow more confident and proud as they tell their story more and more. It’s an empowering act to come forward and say out loud, “I am a person with mental health challenges.”

I think my absolute favorite experience is when we visit the patients at San Francisco General Hospital on the psychiatric unit on the first Monday of the month. We talk about stigma and wellness, and then at the end of our visit, we distribute cards that we’ve written to them, wishing them well in their mental health journey. The patients are touched by the words of encouragement and hope. We began a project called Do Send A Card, and now have people from around the country sending us blank cards as well as handwritten cards with these hope and wellness messages (see our website, dosendacard.org, to electronically send a message of your own!).

How can people in the San Francisco Bay Area bring SOLVE to their school/company/organization? 

SOLVE delivers community presentations throughout San Francisco. Presentations are interactive and packed with information; they include a combination of peer education and resources. To book a presentation, download and complete the Speaker Request Form, and email it to terri@mentalhealthsf.org or fax it to 415-421-2928.

Anyone is welcome to call me, and I’ll be happy to talk further about having SOLVE come to their place of employment, school — or anywhere!

What advice would you give to someone who was just diagnosed with a mental illness?

The first thing to know is, “You are not alone.” You may feel alone and be afraid – but there are many of us who have emotional struggles and challenges and live meaningful, productive lives.

The next thing to do is to be sure to secure a support system made up of people who believe in you, and in your ability to recover. Recovery is real! And contact us at the Mental Health Association of San Francisco if you are in need of any information about resources and more support.

Thank you so much, Terri, for the interview — and thank you to those who have registered for Rawness of Remembering thus far — not only for signing up, but also for helping to fund SOLVE’s important work.