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GUEST BLOG: Auður Axelsdóttir of Hallgrímur-a man like me

By október 4, 2014 No Comments

Auður Axelsdóttir

Hallgrímur-a man like me will be screened at Mad in America’s International Film Festival on Sunday afternoon, October 12th, followed by an Alternatives panel featuring Auður.

Eiríkur Guðmundsson, the film’s producer, wanted to capture Hallgímur’s story and his visions. Eiríkur knew Hallgrímur was a natural storyteller and realized the importantance of his voice being heard. It was important to Eiríkur to tell the story the way Hallgímur, himself, viewed it, and not to have others “specialists” describing him.

The filming began in Connecticut in 2007, and we then followed him over the next three years. Hallgrímur was open to being featured in the film because he wanted people to know his experience of the mental health system, the feeling of being labelled paranoid-schizophrenic, the effects of his medication and then what eventually brought him a sense of hope and recovery. The film is also focusing on the establishment of MindPower and the cooperation between me and

Hallgrímur and how our friendship developed over the years.

In Iceland, the film has been used as tool in our educational program for ninth and tenth grade, in high schools and the university in Reykjavík and Boston University and University of Mannheim in Germany. It is helping to fight stigma and prejudice, and offers young people an alternative understanding of emotional distress, and a perspective on the importance of taking care of your mental health. We’ve seen it open their eyes to the importance of taking care of others arround them and to show other people respect in every aspect of life.

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In 2003 Hallgrímur and I, along with three other survivors of the mental health system, founded MindPower. Sadly three of the founders have passed away and Hallgrímur died at age thirty-four in 2010. Over the years, MindPower has grown in membership to over three hundred members. We keep their spirits alive, and are currently the most active consumer-movement in Iceland.

The five of us had worked together previously and we knew we could make a good team and share our experience, mine as a professional and theirs as consumers/survivors. My experience came from working inside the hospitals as an occupational therapist, where I tried to implement changes around the approach to mental health treatment. But there were many obstacles that were very frustrating at times. The four consumers got a chance to voice their opinions and to create a model of recovery for themselves and others. The personal experience as consumers/survivors was important input for others to understand what was working in the system and what wasn’t.

MindPower’s purpose has been to influence and change the system in Iceland, to fight for dignity and respect in the mental health system, and to increase the power of people with mental health problems. In particular, we wanted to decrease stigma and inform all citizens about recovery and empowerment. We accomplished this by speaking up and by being visible in our society. We wanted more oppurtunities for people with mental health problems to live, work and be part of community. Perhaps not such small goals, but we were optimistic, ready, and convinced that we could make a difference!

The timing was right!

There was a space for new ideas at that time and both the government and the public wanted to hear us and what we had to say, and we got the opportunity and the funding to try our ideas. At the time it was easy to reach politicians and form alliances with them. Iceland is a small country where people know each other, and because of this, politicians must listen to the people. We’ve found that this can create possibilities for easy cooperation. How this works in reality depends, of course, on the situation in Iceland at different times, but it is valuable to have the possibility of close collaboration with those who control the government.

MindPower is now respected as a “leading” group of recovery and empowerment and other groups and institutions want to learn from our experience. An example of this is in policy-making with the goverment and the leading hospital. Unfortunately, policy-making is not always so effective, but we belive that the current health minister may support our view of mental health treatment. MindPower is also visible in the media and they look for our opinion if there is a discussion on various topics within the mental health debate in our society.

We have not yet reached all our goals after eleven years, but we will go on and keep up the fight in the future.

The Recovery center I direct was also established in 2003, and it has grown since then. On a daily basis, we are combining these two groups and our people are getting guidance and help from professionals and survivors at the same time.

For me as a professional, it is most important to combine these two things: the fight for a better mental health system in Iceland, and the cooperation on an equal basis with people. I dont belive in “hierarchy” as I think that good outcomes can only be reached if both provider and consumer respect each other and work together as equals.

I am very much looking for to participating in the panel about alternatives and to see where the discussion takes us.

For more on Auður Axelsdóttir see her previous interview with Mad in America.