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15th March 2017

Mother-turned-mental health advocate

Regina Bisikiewicz didn’t start out intending to become a full-time mental health advocate. She just wanted her son to get better.

From the moment her 18-year-old son had his first psychotic episode in 2005, the mother of four encountered a health care system that viewed people experiencing mental ill health as incurable, compared with many other European countries, which focus on recovery.

“In Poland, we are 30 to 40 years behind when it comes to mental health care, although we live in the same 21stCentury,” Regina says. “The system here is based on isolation, with the belief that the best place for treatment is in a mental hospital. Due to the long-term course of an illness, many people lose their ability to live independently in society,” she explains.

Although there are some hospitals, for example the Babiński Hospital in Krakow, that are pioneering change in mental health care, this is still the exception rather than the rule. Regina saw her son being forced into overcrowded mental health hospital wards, with 40 people in small four-bed rooms, where the basic treatment tool was neuroleptics (also known as antipsychotic drugs, or tranquilisers). “The doctors don’t have time to talk to the patient, don’t have time to ask ‘What happened in your life?’, ‘What are your problems?’, etc.,” she tells This Is Medtech.

But Regina wasn’t about to accept the status quo. After six years and a further six hospitalisations for her son totalling 10 months, she learned about an alternative to traditional mental health support called Open Dialogue (OD) ‒ first used in Finland by a team of psychotherapists including Professor Jaakko Seikkula ‒ that would change not only the course of her son’s treatment, but also begin a dialogue with the Polish government about its mental health care system.

“When we found Open Dialogue, we found everything we needed,” Regina says. “One of the innovations is the idea of open treatment meetings in which both patients and their family and social network are invited from the very beginning to the recovery process. The aim of each meeting is mobilising the psychological resources of the person and his/her network for recovery.”

Regina was so confident that OD would help her son that she established the Polish Institute for Open Dialogue (PIOD) and began teaming up with like-minded people, as well as lobbying the government to change its policy on mental health care. “We didn’t know when we started our journey that we’d need to change the system to help one person,” she notes. Once the PIOD was created and mental health professionals were trained in the approach, Regina was able to start OD meetings with her son. “We are full of hope that the recovery of our son is possible,” she says.

To get PIOD up and running, and to find the best solutions for supporting people experiencing mental distress, Regina has worked tirelessly with professionals all over the world. One partner is Mental Health Europe, an umbrella organisation that represents PIOD and other national mental health patient advocacy groups across Europe.

Among other things, the partners agree that de-stigmatising mental health issues is a huge part of the recovery process.

Stamping out stigma

To address this issue, Mental Health Europe last year launched Each of Us, an anti-stigma and anti-discrimination campaign that seeks to show that mental health problems are more common than people think, i.e. each of us can be part of the solution in changing minds and ending stigma and discrimination against people living with mental ill health. Luckily, as the campaign itself affirms, there are an increasing number of progressive alternatives that harness the use of technology, like mobile apps that can help detect mental health problems early and wearable devices that can help people manage mental health issues.

Human interaction remains very important. As Regina says, “I think that the main principles of the campaign are as well key ingredients of success of Open Dialogue approach. The starting point is hope for recovery.”