In January of this year I was invited to do a pre-conference institute and a keynote address at the First International Conference on Social Work in Health and Mental Health Care at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel. Over 600 people from all over the world came to participate in the four day conference. My talks and workshops covered a wide range of topics including a simulated training on hearing voices that are distressing, recovery and empowerment, and the oppression of people labeled with mental illness. Perhaps the most moving moment in the conference for me was when I was approached by a woman from South Africa. I had just given my keynote address in which I talked a lot about struggling to find our pride and dignity as we labor under the yoke of poverty, discrimination, stigma, inferior health care, homelessness, etc. The women from South Africa had tears in her eyes as she said to me: “All I would have to do is substitute the words growing up as a black woman in apartheid South Africa for your words growing up labeled with mental illness. The oppression is essentially the same. I never understood that until now. Now I can see my work with people very differently.”

While in Jerusalem I had the chance to meet members of the relatively new self-help and mutual support movement in Israel. Their organization is called “Hitmodedoot” and here is an excerpt of what a woman named Shula had to say about it during our pre-conference institute:

What is Hitmodedoot? It is a group of people who are trying to improve the situation and the lives of people with mental illness in Israel. This group has been operating for three and a half years in Tel-Aviv and for about a year and a half in Jerusalem. The word Hitmodedoot in Hebrew means “coping” or “the struggle”. It started as one self help group in Tel-Aviv which was founded by Tzviel Rofe. Today there are four groups in Tel-Aviv, two groups in Jerusalem and two groups in Haifa. We meet, talk, are interested in one another, exchange phone numbers and share mutual support. There is no professional figure involved. We have an open hot-line both in Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem. Hitmodedoot does not offer treatment and does not want to replace it. Hitmodedoot wants to be another source of help. The possibility to speak freely and openly with people who suffer from similar problems and are forced to hide their “terrible secret” from the world can now talk to each other and help other people as well. We have an opportunity today to show people that we are not crazy…. Hitmodedoot helped me and others to accept ourselves and start coping in a much better way.

Shula’s words about Hitmodedoot are truly universal. Whether in the U.S. or Israel or Iceland or Australia the struggle remains the same for those of us labeled with mental illness. And of course, although Hitmodedoot is starting as a self-help and mutual support network, it is quickly realizing that at certain points the personal becomes political and that self help evolves into social action. Indeed, upon arriving in Jerusalem I found out that Hitmodedoot was boycotting the conference because there were almost no consumer/survivor scholarships available. “Ahhh,” I said, “I feel at home already. It’s a small world after all.”