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RTP Weekly Highlight Header - Issue No. 5, April 29, 2011

May 12, 2011 Volume 2, Issue 17
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The World May One Day Be Led by Persons With Mental Illnesses
By Steve Harrington, J.D., Executive Director, National Association of Peer Specialists
Two bits of information recently came to me that, taken together, caused me to formulate the following, inescapable conclusion: persons with a mental illness, particularly those with schizophrenia, are destined to lead the world.

This conclusion is well-supported by social scientists and organizational theorists. Very recently, researchers have concluded that the best leaders for organizations of all types are those who know themselves best. Experience has shown that those who know themselves well, and are comfortable with who they are, relate to others in a humane, compassionate way. That, in turn, inspires workers with loyalty and a desire to become more creative and productive. Everyone wins! Gone is the attitude that productivity is best driven by cold-hearted bean counters who monitor every move it takes to create a widget.

One business author, Robert Thomas, CEO of Accenture Performance, uses current leaders as examples. In his new book, Crucibles of Leadership, Thomas writes that the best way for people to know themselves, and thus become more effective leaders, is through adversity. He cites cases where deaths and illnesses forced now-effective leaders to reevaluate their lives and reprioritize their values. The result: compassionate people who lead with their hearts and workers who have never been more happy, productive, and creative. Businesses, especially the most successful in the world, know this lesson well.

So, it struck me. Where would you go to find people who have experienced adversity and grown through the experience? Psych hospitals! (Or those who have been there.)

Complementing this revelation is another. I recently heard a respected psychiatrist, sitting on a panel of his peers, go through a litany of challenges persons with schizophrenia face. The doctor painted a pretty ugly (and, fortunately, unrealistic) picture of what life is like for all persons with schizophrenia. At the end of his presentation, an audience member asked if there could be anything positive resulting from schizophrenia.

“Oh, yes,” the doctor replied immediately. “Persons with this illness are often great problem solvers. They think ‘outside the box.’ Once you've had your sense of reality shaken, it's easier to take risks and be creative.” The doctor used Nobel laureate John Nash as an example of how schizophrenia can result in creative thinking.

I thought for a moment about my own reality challenges. Walls moved, ceilings collapsed, lines on the road shifted, and voices… oh, those voices telling me what to do! And then there was that day I had a stimulating conversation with an unseen companion on a street corner. That little incident sent me back to the hospital, where meds ended the conversation—but not its memory.

Then I remembered the words of a professor recommending me for a doctoral program in public administration.

“Steve, you just don't think like other people,” he said. “You come up with ideas and approaches that are totally unique. Your head just doesn't accept reality, and that challenges us to change our perception of reality. That's what creative problem-solving is all about. You don't just think outside the box—you don't even know there is a box!”

Here's the bottom line: Those of us who have been there know all the disadvantages of having a mental illness, especially one like schizophrenia, which can affect cognitive abilities and perceptions of reality. On the other hand, society appears on the brink of recognizing the value of serious life challenges, especially when those challenges are used to foster personal growth.

The professional must therefore work to build upon the person's strengths (such as the perspective of yours truly being a creative problem-solver) and use them as the motivating factors to enhance his/her recovery. As is illustrated above, we can look at strengths instead of just the illness.

I foresee a time when executive headhunters will prowl the hallways of our psychiatric hospitals, looking for new leaders for organizations of all types. Gone will be the days when executive job descriptions require an MBA. Instead, job descriptions will read: “Life-changing experience through adversity desired; mental illness a plus.”

Look out, world. We're taking over!

Conference of the Five Continents – Lyon 2011
Psychosocial Effects of Globalization on Mental Health:
Toward an Ecology of Social Links
Lyon France

Oct. 19—22, 2011

This timely conference offers an opportunity to begin building a worldwide network of people—practitioners, peers, policy makers, researchers/scholars, and others—to address the multiple opportunities and challenges that we face as our prospects become more intertwined worldwide, for better for some, and for worse, no doubt, for others.

For more information

2011 Campaign For Social Inclusion Awards Now Available
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) announces the availability of the 2011 Campaign for Social Inclusion Awards, formerly the Campaign for Mental Health Recovery State Awards, which fund selected statewide peer-run organizations across the United States to promote social inclusion at the State and local levels and to counter the negative perceptions, attitudes, and beliefs associated with mental health and/or substance use problems.

This year, SAMHSA will award six $20,000 grants for statewide and community-based efforts that promote and expand the “What a Difference a Friend Makes” campaign ( Proposed activities must target 18- to 25-year-olds and provide a detailed plan to increase awareness of behavioral health issues and of mental health and addictions recovery among young adults—in particular, those from diverse populations, including Hispanic, African American, Asian American/Pacific Islander, and American Indian populations. Proposals are also encouraged that address young adults who have experienced trauma.

These awards support SAMHSA's Strategic Initiatives of Public Awareness and Support, Trauma and Justice, and Recovery Support.

The application period for the 2011 Campaign for Social Inclusion Awards for Statewide Peer-Operated Projects opens May 6, 2011. The deadline for submitting applications is June 6, 2011.

The comprehensive project guide, which fully describes the project focus, eligibility requirements, application requirements, and other important information, is available at

For questions on this application, please contact Campaign Liaison Ruth Montag at 240.744.7062 or

The RTP Resource Center Wants to Hear From
Recovery-Oriented Practitioners!
We invite practitioners to submit personal stories that describe how they became involved in recovery-oriented work and how it has changed the way they currently practice.
The RTP Resource Center Wants to Hear From You, Too!
We invite you to submit personal stories that describe recovery experiences. To submit personal stories or other recovery resources, please contact Stephanie Bernstein, MSW, at 1.877.584.8535,
or email

We welcome your views, comments, suggestions, and inquiries.
For more information on this topic or any other recovery topics,
please contact the RTP Resource Center at
1.877.584.8535 or email

The views, opinions, and content of this Weekly Highlight are those of the authors and do not necessarily
reflect the views, opinions, or policies of SAMHSA or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.