Speech in Portland Maine, June 22, 2017
What makes you feel most alive? For me it is when we finally can talk about the thing we haven’t been talking about. That is such a thrill: it makes you feel that, yes! it’s going to happen, and things are going to change. Things will feel real.
I started Safe Space Radio because of what I learned from my work as a clinician. As a psychiatrist I see people with depression, panic attacks, trauma, addiction, or bipolar disorder, and what I kept hearing was: at the root, each person was suffering from the same thing. They were suffering from feeling like damaged goods, defective, that there was something wrong with them that made them fear they were unlovable, weak, a failure. This is shame, and it silences people and makes us want to hide. It leaves us alone with our worst suffering. And this aloneness, this isolation is dangerous. It is a key ingredient in suicide. I came to see that shame is a lethal public health threat.
And so I decided that I needed to find a public health solution to a public health problem. And it occurred to me that radio was the perfect medium. The root word for shame means to cover, because when we feel shame we don’t want to be seen. My patients often cover their face, or lower their eyes, when they are talking about the feelings connected to shame. Radio allows the guest to speak courageously without having to be visually exposed, and it allows the listener the chance to listen in private, to intimate, and healing conversations. It is free, accessible online anywhere in the world.
As we developed Safe Space Radio I came to see it as a public health initiative to reduce Shame, Stigma and Silencing, and I want to talk a little bit about each one.
Shame is not just a universal psychological experience, it is a political one. That which silences and isolates us, keeps us separate from each other and preserves the status quo. Shame can be used as a tool to control people’s behavior. It makes us less likely to ask for what we need, or to feel that we deserve it. And yet, when even just one courageous person dares to come forward with their story, it is contagious. Other people feel safer to come forward themselves, so that we can work together to bring change.
Stigma: At first I thought of stigma as something primarily related to mental illness. But as I kept learning from my guests, stigma is finally about discrimination, and dehumanization. In ancient Greece, Stigma was a literal brand into the skin of an enslaved person, or a criminal or a traitor. It told people that this person was not trustworthy, no longer credible. It was a permanent mark designed to change the way that people related to you. Stigma now applies to all people who are treated as “other” in our society. It brands people as “less than” due to culture, race, disability, age, body size, gender, sexuality, education, class, wealth, occupation, religion, intellect or nationality. De-humanization, the treatment of a person as if they are less-than, is dangerous: it can be a prelude to violence, and to life-altering lack of opportunity. I now think of anti-stigma work, as the work of human rights, the work of “Re-humanization.” Safe Space Radio is a form of human rights education, and is being used as part of the curriculum in high schools, colleges and in training programs for teachers, social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists.
Silencing: During a series we aired on the history of the Wabanaki peoples in Maine, I learned that silencing was a form of violence. When you kill off a people, you silence them. And when you silence them by removing their children and punishing their language, and setting out to destroy a culture, you are committing acts of violence. In response to the HIV epidemic, the ACT UP movement taught us that Silence=Death and yet it remains true today. For instance, I learned from our radio series on Refugee women in Maine that sexual assault is highly prevalent among women seeking asylum in the US. Cultural taboos on talking about rape meant that many women weren’t telling their lawyers, or the immigration officers what had happened to them, and were therefore not seen as having a strong case. Quite literally, silence put their lives at risk.
And so, on Safe Space Radio our guests courageously share open and honest stories about difficult subjects, the ones that are connected to shame, stigma and silence, as a way to foster greater empathy, as a way to “re-humanize.” Story is the way for people to connect. Because when a guest dares to tell a courageously vulnerable story, the personal becomes the universal, and we can each find a way to relate. I used to think that the work of fostering empathy was for the sake of the guest, and the groups of people that they represent, that their stories would help to “humanize” their struggle. But now I realize that the show works to “humanize” our listeners, by opening our hearts where they have been closed. This experience of feeling a new softness, a new tenderness and warmth toward others, is a wonderful feeling of regaining and reconnecting with our own humanity. When we identify with someone, we are less likely to be violent, and to discriminate against them, and today, this is more important than ever. The media has become an important protector of truth and safety in our culture. When we work to help people understand others and to care about them, it is a force for peace. On Safe Space Radio we work to take what has been unspeakable and turn it into something that brings us together.
As far as I can tell, we are the first mental health oriented public health podcast in the country.
We fundamentally believe that breaking silence is a step toward mobilizing communities to work for change. Here are two direct examples of ways that Safe Space Radio conversations have sparked a movement of people coming together to make a difference:
- We did a show about transgender issues, and the guest asked me directly on live radio, whether I was prepared to be trained to become the second doctoral level clinician in the state of Maine, who could do evaluations for transgender adults who were seeking sexual reassignment surgery. He explained that in order to get the surgery which would allow people to finally feel at home in their own body, the requirement was for two doctors to conduct an evaluation, and that in Maine there was only one such person. After initially pausing nervously (I had no classes about this in medical school) I told him we could do one better, and we put together a training about transgender issues, that led to 12 new psychiatrists becoming available to conduct these evaluations.
- After the series on women refugees that I referred to, a group of volunteer therapists came forward to partner with refugee women to support asylum-seekers to speak about their trauma for the first time, before they had to undergo legal scrutiny. This group is called the Hearing Aides and continues to meet.
When we can talk about the feelings and fears that we hide, and break the silence that isolates us; we can reconnect with each other and feel safer, in our own bodies, our own communities and in our own country.