Speaker: Community needs to be respectful with mental illness

FULTON, Mo. — Joel Slack knows firsthand that something as simple as a reassuring, helping hand can go a long way in the journey to mental health and recovery.

The mental health care advocate and consultant, whom Fulton State Hospital officials credit with helping the institution shift to a more recovery-oriented model 13 years ago, returned to Fulton this week as part of his Respect Seminar.

Slack gave a speech to a packed Ingle Auditorium on Thursday, detailing his own experiences with mental health and urging hospital staff, clients and the general public to be respectful.

Slack is the founder of RESPECT International and the Respect Institute, which encourages people living with mental illness to come forth at speaking engagements to discuss their own paths to recovery in order to battle stigma.

“I’ve found that other mental health programs didn’t work because they were just trying to convince people that we’re ‘just not that dangerous.’ I found that made people even more suspicious,” he said. “The best way is for people who have experienced it to stand up and tell their story.”

The road to recovery

That was how Slack himself began his speech, detailing his struggles with mental illness. It was 37 years ago — Slack was following his dreams with a basketball scholarship at Marshall University. But in the summer between his freshman and sophomore years, he found himself lethargic and disoriented before having what he called a mental breakdown.

He spent much of the next eight years in and out of various hospitals and mental health facilities, but he wouldn’t describe the negative aspects of his time then; instead, he said he still could remember the acts of sensitivity and encouragement that caregivers showed him over the years.

“I’m not just grateful for being able to recover and go on to live a long, fulfilling life,” Slack said. “What I’m most grateful for is that along that long, long journey of recovery, boy, I met some of the most compassionate, respectful and caring people who nudged me along my recovery.”

Since making that recovery, Slack went on to graduate from Allegheny College with a degree in International Economics and Business Psychology. He worked briefly in the private sector before committing his time to advocate for mental health, and has consulted for psychiatric systems worldwide.

Slack has seen changes such as the implementation of the Respect Institute at hospitals including Fulton State Hospital, and the removal of barbed wire fences around psychiatric hospitals to promote a more welcoming environment. Slack noted he also promotes respect among professional colleagues to build a more healthy environment, and touted the healing benefits for clients learning to be respectful to their caregivers.

“I believe respect as over the years, is on this very day and will always be, the most important ingredient in the rehabilitation environment,” Stack said. “No matter how many decades you work in this field, there will be one thing that will never change, and that’s the value of respect.”

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