By Carol Scott and Lori Jarvis-Steinwert
We read with interest the recent article (Sunday, April 6) by Gazette Editor Joe Hight on the imperative for civility in our online and face-to-face public conversations on issues of importance to our community and state. We couldn't agree more.
We're pleased to report that two recent community gatherings dedicated to discussions on mental health in our community demonstrated that we're capable of conversations that are respectful and productive. (March 6 Community Conversation on Mental Health, hosted by The Gazette, Colorado College and Food for Thought, and April 5 Community Dialogue hosted by UCCS.) We learned that there's something we can agree on in Colorado Springs: We need to create a more compassionate, responsive community for those who live with mental illness.
Food for Thought, a program of the Colorado Springs Diversity Forum that hosts dialogue groups that model respectful conversations, and the local affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) have partnered to convene these community forums. These meetings are an offshoot of the National Dialogue on Mental Health, a national initiative launched at the White House last June. The initiative's goal: to get people and communities around the country talking about mental health and taking action to do something about local challenges. (See www.creatingcommunitysolutions.org.)
The National Dialogue initiative is known locally as Mental Health Begins with ME, and we have involved more than 300 everyday citizens, including many who work in the mental health field. The community dialogues have sparked curiosity, passion for the mental health issue, and a desire to collectively roll up our sleeves and do something about it.
People have taken time from their busy lives to participate in this process of "dialogue-to-action." They've embraced the opportunity by participating in small groups and sharing their own experiences and insights about how we can address the mental health issue locally. We've discovered that there's a keen interest in educating everyday citizens about how to identify and respond to mental illness when they see it in themselves or someone else.
There's also a will to make this community a better place for those who live with serious mental illness. That means stripping away stigma and understanding that many people can and do recover from a serious mental illness with the right support and treatment. We know that one in four individuals will face mental illness during their life, so this is an issue that can touch any one of us and often does - if not in ourselves then in a family member or friend.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and next month we'll continue the process and gather downtown for an action forum where we'll narrow down and prioritize the ideas generated at the two previous forums. We'll create an action plan - a blueprint for our community - that will continue to involve everyday citizens in community change and improvement, and we'll applaud the community for coming together to tackle the mental health issue that is relevant and important to so many of us.
Food for Thought and NAMI believe that this model for civil discourse provides a template for respectful conversations that we can carry into our everyday interactions and conversations. It's a model for how we can back away from our combativeness and begin to forge new relationships and approaches to getting things done in this community. We know that it works.
Carol Scott is chair, Food for Thought Program, and senior associate, Everyday Democracy. Lori Jarvis-Steinwert is executive director, NAMI-Colorado Springs.