Tracey Carney inspires Mental Health Symposium

Photo submitted to Times Observer Tracey Carney

Forest/Warren Mental Wellness Association and Forest/Warren Human Services, in conjunction with Systems of Care, hosted the first annual Mental Health Symposium in the Slater Room at the Warren Public Library on Thursday, May 31. The event showcased artwork created by local students and organizations and featured keynote speaker Tracey Carney, a recovery specialist with a unique mental wellness recovery story.

Carney told a story of her journey from mental illness to mental wellness and correlated it to her experiences as a hiker on the Appalachian Trail. She started sharing these stories as a part of her effort to address the stigmas related to mental illness in the United States.

“I introduce myself to you today,” said Ms. Carney, “as a wife, a mom, and a grandma, and a pet owner. I do that on purpose, because when I get up to talk about mental illness, people have a picture in their mind. Unfortunately, we’re living in a day and age where we’re equating mental illness with violence. I introduce myself like this to say that’s not the way we are. I am more like you than I am not like you.

“Only four percent of all violent crime is perpetrated by a person with a diagnosed mental illness,” she said. “People diagnosed with a serious mental illness are 10 times more likely to be a victim of crime. Somehow, we don’t hear that on the evening news.

“It’s the reason I stand up and talk about it, because I really feel like we need to change the dialog and reduce the stigma around mental illness,” she said. “I am here to share with you two journeys I have been on. The first is related to mental illness to wellness and the second is much different and involves hiking on the Appalachian Trail.

Photo submitted to Times Observer Artisanal tree created by students at the EOC’s Head Start program.

“In 2000 I experienced a clinical depression so dark it crippled my life,” said Carney. “It’s just like your world goes from living color to black and white. I was completely unable to function. After a stay in psychiatric unit, tried a variety of medications, went to day treatment programs and eventually ended up in Danville State Hospital in 2004.”

She told the parallel stories of recovery and her journey on the Appalachian Trail; in each case she utilized what she referred to as the principles of recovery (Hope, Personal Responsibility, Peer Support, Choice, Education, Empowerment, Self Advocacy, and Spirituality) to get through each experience. She was continuing her effort to recover from depression when she had a breakthrough in 2009. With the help of a close personal friend, she decided to make her first 171-mile, three-week trek on the Appalachian Trail from Fontana Dam, N.C., to Springer Mountain, Ga. She was 50 years old, and travelled 14 miles a day with a 25-pound pack on her back.

“When hiking the Appalachian Trail, I have found that the recovery principles I used for mental health recovery are the same principles that have guided me successfully as a hiker,” said Carney. “These recovery principles are universal and will help people no matter what the burden they are carrying.

“I have found ways to nourish my life physically, spiritually, and psychologically,” she said. “In your own life, or with the individuals you work with, those diagnosed with mental illness, please keep the recovery principles in mind, because you never know when you just might be the person who sparks hope in someone and starts them on their pathway to mental wellness recovery.”

Tammy Hawk, parent advocate for Warren-Forest Human Services called Carney’s message “encouraging.

“Her determination to face challenges, both in her treatment and her hiking adventure, is proof that the human spirit can overcome,” said Hawk.

Kari Salapek, outpatient clinic director for Beacon Light, said, “Tracey shared a wonderful presentation with the group regarding her parallel journey of hiking the Appalachian Trail and her journey towards mental health recovery. Her continued efforts towards decreasing the stigma of mental health is truly inspiring.”

Plans are underway to have Carney return for a follow-up presentation.

“Overall, it was a great first step,” said Warren County Commissioner Jeff Eggleston. “(It) allows people to come together to discuss related topics and address the stigma around mental health. I’m already looking forward to next year.”

The room was filled with artisanal trees created by students at the EOC’s Head Start program and several from nonprofit organizations. Part of the room also included pictures of trees created by students in the Warren and Forest school districts. All trees were created as a part of the “Build A Tree” program initiated by Systems of Care to help build awareness during Mental Health Awareness Month (which was May).

“I am so impressed,” said Eggleston, “with the work that was done as a part of this effort. The kids just knocked it out of the park creativity wise. Especially when you see the truly thoughtful sentiments they wrote on the leaves of the trees about mental health.”

One tree poster from EOC had the headline “If I see someone sad I would…” and included responses from the children like, “…I would help lift them up.” or “…I would hug them.” or “…I would play with them.”

Another tree poster said, “We lift up our friends with our words and actions.” A bright yellow poster had brown arms for branches with phrases reflecting on things that made the kids happy like, “I am happy when I stay at nana’s and papa’s,” or “I am happy when Mya plays with me.”

All of the comments forced the participants to think about their experiences and roles in dealing with mental health.

For information on the events and projects that were conducted as a part of Mental Health Awareness Month, visit http://growingstrong.info/, call (814) 706-8343), or email jeff.eggleston@warren-county.net.

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