National Alliance on Mental Illness
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Interview with Isabel Vidales of San Diego, CA

by Jim McNulty, Director of the STAR Center

¡Avanzamos! Otoño 2007

Isabel was in the first group of mentors to be trained in the Spanish version of NAMI’s Peer to Peer Recovery Education Course.

Jim: How are you, Isabel?

Isabel: I just saw the Spanish language Peer-to-Peer video that we did in St. Louis last year. I am so enthusiastic! The video is very empowering, illuminating… it brought me back to the experience in St. Louis. That was so eventful: I had never seen where Latinos were brought together to share experience – Spanish speaking people from all walks of life.

The power of the [Spanish-language Peer to Peer] video is that it brought together, in one place, Spanish-speaking people from South America, Central America, Mexico and the United States.  These were people from many varied backgrounds, and the course and video showed the common experience we all share of what mental illness is.

One power of NAMI education programs like Peer to Peer is that they teach you to ask questions - without knowledge, it is impossible to ask many questions. They help you to judge what most people think is "normal".

Jim: What is your family history with mental illness?

Isabel: My mom and my grandmother had mental illness; my daughter has something -- the best description I can think of is a hyperkinesthesia - she is acutely sensitive to her environment, and reacts to it, and she suffers deep depressions.  She won't see a therapist, in spite of knowing her family history.  My daughter gets angry when I shut down (though I am feeling intensely), very negative. After watching the video, she was able to see someone outside the family with mental illness, and her reaction was "God, mom I understand so much better what you experience -- so give me a sign, so I can give you support!" I hope that the examples in the video will lead her to find some answers for herself.  And my son lives with bipolar disorder.

We need to be aware that there are differences in how we experience the illnesses: it is one thing to be an adult, it is one thing to be a child, it is one thing to be a parent.

Jim: Do you see yourself as experiencing recovery?

Isabel: I don't use the term recovery; I think of what I am experiencing as self-evolution, self-realization.  The NAMI Peer-to-Peer helped -- the way the whole thing is done, training mentors, it helps you understand yourself which helps you better manage what you don't understand and empowers you to work with others.  It broadens one's empathic perspective - not pity, seeing the person with their problem not through a lens of pity, rather understanding.

It was very enriching, gave me the ability to see the experiences of others compassionately, as problems of life, not necessarily just mental illness.

Jim: Tell us a little bit about what you do with Project Moses

Isabel: Project Moses is a process that was conceived to help us see others objectively, and to assist them to navigate the family system of care; in particular to use cross-system approaches to solve problems.  Many of the families that we work with have multiple issues: poverty is the common denominator.  What Project Moses does is to help people look for the way beyond this, to give them the tools that they need to assist themselves, to empower themselves to solve their own problems.   We act as guides, as mentors.

Jim: And how did you come to be involved with Project Moses?

Isabel: it was primarily because of my son: he was involved with drugs and gangs, and because of my mother's mental illness I knew that I had to commit to learning about mental health, to know and understand these illnesses.  It takes a lot of effort to learn about these illnesses, this is why what NAMI does is so important. This is also how I learned that I live with bipolar disorder.

Jim: Do you find that there is as much stigma in the Latino community as in the majority culture?

Isabel: Yes, there is, but at the same time the community is hungry [for knowledge about mental illness] -- there is so much happening in our community, and this is a wonderful time to be connecting with families.  When I was young, my mother was ill and she went into the state hospital.  My father, my brothers all denied that there was such a thing as mental illness.  Now they know, and accept the reality

Things go up and down; many things need to come together. There is a multiplicity of issues, with many tied to economic concerns.  In 1995/1996 the welfare system started shifting, and while this made things difficult for people, it also required that they look for new answers to old problems.

Now we find telenovelas dealing with mental illness, interviews on television with psychiatrists from Mexico and the US.

People in recovery have the knowledge to help others, they need to know how to meet people where they are, and they need a cheat sheet to give a total strategy -- so people know where to begin, and how to get there.


Jim: What impact do you see within your community as a result of the very strong anti-immigration mood in the United States right now?


Isabel: It is what it is.  This is not new, our community knows what it is like to feel oppression from the authorities.  The families know how to protect themselves, and they shut out outsiders and trust no one.  The authorities are almost never helpful, institutions promise things, and they try to deliver,, but then their funding streams are diverted or cut.  This has a huge impact on programs that have been helpful to our community.


It is difficult now because of the sweeps, and people are afraid of using hospitals, schools and stores.  And this is not just people who are undocumented, but many members of the Latino community are harassed in these actions.  The environment is discouraging, but it will change.


In the meantime, advocates must continue to do their work of empowering others are making them aware of new things, of things they were not knowledgeable of.  The most powerful thing we can do is give people the tools and knowledge to help themselves.


Jim: Do you have any final thoughts?


Isabel: Faith and spirituality are what gave me the power to help me and sustain me in making changes to my life that I needed to make.  These are not things that you can see, but without them I do not think recovery is possible.  That was another part of the Spanish Peer-To-Peer: the attention to spirituality.  This transcends all backgrounds, all cultures and brought us together.