What is a RESPECT Institute?

A RESPECT Institute (RI) training supports participants in developing the skills necessary to transform their experiences of mental health or substance use challenges---and cross-disabilities---into educational and inspirational presentations. The RI trains participants to organize, construct, and customize their personal stories so they can deliver them in diverse venues such as conferences, management meetings, employee orientations, university classrooms, peer-run organizations, civic meetings, and continuing education programs.

For many RI participants, determining how much of their lived experiences they are comfortable disclosing may prove to be the most sensitive issue they face during the course of a RI training. During the first day of a RI, simply encouraging participants to “wander or wonder curiously” through their experiences, challenges and recovery guides them as they construct their story. As the training progresses, the facilitator seeks clarification from the participants, supporting them in amplifying important points and engaging them in group discussions to uncover the importance of their stories. The facilitator also has the important responsibility of supporting participants in identifying the educative messages within their stories.

During the course of the RI, the facilitator encourages participants to consider how their story will impact an audience. For example, will an individual’s story inspire caregivers to treat patients with respect or will their story be accusatorial and put caregivers on the defensive? Will the educative message instruct employees on how to seclude or restrain a frightened patient with greater sensitivity or possibly even encourage employees to avoid using such techniques altogether? Will their story be filled with anger and perhaps alienate the audience? Is their message limited to experiences of illness and victimization or is it balanced with experiences that support hope and recovery? Consideration of these types of questions enhances the presentations.

Most participants in the RI report feeling more confident and more in control of their life experiences once they learn the skills needed to deliver their stories to audiences, while others may require more encouragement and support. Above all else, the RI empowers participants by acknowledging, by honoring and by valuing their personal experiences and insights. Through this recognition and acceptance, participants reclaim their sense of self. They own their personal experiences without shame or embarrassment. Ultimately, participants become instrumental in alleviating stigma in the general public, in advancing the message of recovery and independent living and in educating the next generation of healthcare professionals.

History of the RESPECT Institute

Following Joel Slack’s freshman year in college he experienced mental health challenges that resulted in nearly 3 years of psychiatric hospitalization and 4 years of community mental health programs. He did recover from his challenges and returned to college where he earned a degree in International Economics and Business Psychology.

After graduation, Joel moved to Atlanta to take a corporate job, but felt as though he was abandoning his peers who continued to experience mental health challenges. He quit his corporate job and became a volunteer advocate for persons living with mental health challenges, championing the message of recovery. There were no paid positions or Certified Peer Specialist positions at the time. However, the Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Mental Health (now the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities or DBHDD) contracted with Joel to evaluate all of Georgia’s state-operated psychiatric hospitals exclusively from a patient’s, or peer’s, perspective. On the final day of each week-long evaluation, Joel provided a debriefing to the hospital’s senior management team and offered suggestions on how to make the hospital a more sensitive and respectful environment for the people who were staying there and receiving behavioral health services.

The first hospital Joel evaluated was in Thomasville. As he drove up to the entrance to the hospital, Joel noticed an extra thick barbed wire fence encircling the entrance and the perimeter of the hospital. This image did not leave Joel with an impression of a warm and welcoming environment. Following the week-long evaluation, Joel met with the senior management of the hospital in order to present his recommendations. He suggested that they begin sensitizing their environment by tearing down the barbed wire fence!

The average tenure of the senior management team was nearly 17 years. They stood up and pulled the drapes to the conference room windows to look outside and for their very first time the barbed wire fence was visible to them. For years, none of them was aware of the barbed wire fence. However, the following week, the hospital director had the barbed wire fence removed!

In that moment, Joel realized that recipients of behavioral health services perceive the treatment environment much differently than the administrators and professionals who provide the services. He decided to share his personal story of mental health challenges and recovery and used his lived experiences to illustrate a peer’s perspective. Over the course of 15 years, Joel presented his story to over 350,000 people in 42 different countries. He found that each time he shared his story, he was able to gain greater perspective on his mental health challenges and recovery. He achieved such clarity that his experiences were no longer frightening and mysterious; he was able to heal, fully experience recovery and move on with his life. He decided that if he benefited so much from telling his story, perhaps others could too. So he created the RESPECT Institute.

In 2001, Joel was providing training and consultation services at Fulton State Hospital (FSH) in Fulton, Missouri. FSH is a maximum security forensic psychiatric hospital and most of the individuals staying at the hospital had committed a crime as a result of their mental health challenges; they were deemed by the judicial system “Not Guilty By Reason of Insanity”. The hospital’s management, who were progressive thinkers, realized that many of the individuals under their care had a better understanding of what they needed in order to recover than did most of the behavioral health professionals who were providing their healthcare services. The management wondered if there was a way to take advantage of the lived experiences and the wisdom of these individuals, perhaps involving them in new employee orientation classes and on-going annual staff trainings. In other words, the individuals living with mental health challenges would train the hospital staff!
Since Joel had already developed an informal program of helping peers learn to tell their stories, FSH management hosted the first formal RESPECT Institute (RI) in 2002. The RI at FSH rapidly surpassed its original mission to provide training to new employees. In addition to new employees, RI speakers went on to present to senior managers, staff and visitors to the hospital, including visiting nurses, family members and students. They also made presentations to university and high school students as well as to legislators and civic organizations.

In 2007, the Missouri Department of Mental Health funded the statewide implementation of the RESPECT Institute program. In addition to conducting RESPECT Institutes, a statewide infrastructure was created that supported the RI at the community level. Joel began training RI facilitators in each community. The infrastructure included a statewide coordinator who trained new facilitators and who hosted monthly conference calls where facilitators shared information about their RI training experiences.
The RESPECT Institute of Georgia

In 2012, Mark Baker, the retired Director of the Office of Recovery Transformation for the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, brought the RESPECT Institute to Georgia. Mark’s vision was to bring the lived experience of Peers to the forefront of the Georgia behavioral health system, acknowledging that their voice would positively influence decisions made by behavioral health administrators and providers. Also, Mark saw the RESPECT Institute of Georgia as being complimentary to the work of Certified Peer Specialists.

Today, the DBHDD works in partnership with Slack Consulting, the Georgia Mental Health Consumer Network (GMHCN) and Mental Health America of Georgia (MHAG). Joel Slack (Slack Consulting) is responsible for the implementation of the RI of Georgia program. In addition to conducting RESPECT Institute trainings for people experiencing mental health challenges, trainings are also available to people living with substance use challenges and cross-disabilities.

Jen Banathy is the RI of Georgia Organizational Development Coordinator; she leads the RI Team at GMHCN and facilitates RIs. Anthony Williams is the RI of Georgia Training Coordinator; he works with our host organizations around the state to schedule, plan and coordinate RI trainings. Lindsey Sizemore and Toyia Mather are the RI of Georgia Outreach Coordinators; they facilitate speaking engagements in the community for RI Graduates and work with RI communities to support their outreach efforts.
Since the beginning of the RI of Georgia in August 2012, the RI team successfully conducted over 125 RESPECT Institutes statewide and graduated over 1,000 individuals. Additionally, RI Graduates shared their stories to over 100,000 Georgians.

For More Information on the RESPECT Institute, please contact:
Jen Banathy, CPS, CPS-AD
RESPECT Institute of Georgia
Organizational Development Coordinator
Georgia Mental Health Consumer Network
246 Sycamore Street, Suite 260
Decatur, GA 30030
Office: 404-687-9487
Cell: 404-909-1236

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