Erasing the mental illness stigma through spoken word

(From left to right) Richard Alexandro, Carmine Desena, Pat Alexandro, Michelle Benjamin and Brendan Foley

What do four people – a 51-year-old man living with bipolar disorder; his mother; a former court officer; and a history scholar – have in common? They are all living with major psychiatric disorders. But, thanks to strict compliance to medication and continued therapy, each has triumphed over their disorder and three are now employed by Zucker Hillside Hospital (ZHH) as peer counselors for other patients through the hospital’s personalized recovery-oriented services (PROS) program.

As part of their therapy, these courageous four wrote and produced a theatrical piece entitled “The Spoken Word,” which they had the opportunity to perform before a packed room today at ZHH. During their presentation, the poets recited, sang, rapped and spoke their feelings in an effort to tear down the common myths and cruel beliefs that continue to stigmatize the population of Americans living with behavioral health disorders.

During his introductory remarks, the hospital’s director of psychiatric rehabilitation, Carmine Desena, explained that programs such as this one are important to familiarize community members with the various aspects of mental illness and recovery.

The first to present was Rich Alexandro, 51, of Richmond Hills, Queens. Mr. Alexandro was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 18. Always plagued with thoughts that he didn’t fit in, Rich was afflicted with hallucinations until he received the proper diagnosis and medications. Now a peer advocate, Mr. Alexandro’s goal is to “illuminate” – to shed light on how it feels to live with bipolar disorder. As he wrote, “I’ma act normal, whatever that means/ Playin’ fake scenes and routines cuz I inherited blue genes.”

Pat Alexandro, Mr. Alexandro’s mother, of Bellerose, Queens, recalls having a major breakdown shortly after the birth of her fourth child. Three months later, she was hospitalized with postpartum depression. It is her hope to support her son and encourage people in the community to treat everyone with dignity and respect. In calling for compassion, Ms. Alexandro said, “So, please be patient with me now and take me as I am/and I in turn will take you as you are.”

Brendan Foley, 41, of Bayside, Queens, became obsessed with religion at the age of 15. After becoming suicidal in college, Mr. Foley was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 18. He lived through multiple hospitalizations until he was able to return to his life and achieve a master’s degree in history. Tormented with thoughts that he didn’t fit in since childhood, Mr. Foley was plagued with religious hallucinations until he received the proper diagnosis and medication. Even though he went to therapy and complied with his medical regimen, Mr. Foley continued to feel the burden of stigma. He came to ZHH in 2012 to begin vocational therapy. As a peer advocate, his goal is to use his experiences with illness as a way to connect with others in this population and to speak out against the disrespect and injustice that accompanies stigma. In his piece entitled, “My Curse Is My Blessing,” Mr. Foley declared, “I am here to say that my illness has let me understand people in a different way. I am blessed, not cursed. And I am Brendan, not bipolar.”

Michelle Benjamin, 50, also of Bayside, has been living with depression for most of her life. A product of a very strict upbringing, Michelle always wanted to help and support children, which led to a career at a detention facility in the Bronx. After suffering a major breakdown following a traumatic event at the age of 46, Ms. Benjamin decided to drive herself to the emergency department at LIJ Medical Center in New Hyde Park. Diagnosed with schizoaffective mood disorder, Ms. Benjamin’s ability to connect with others at ZHH (where she received treatment) was soon rewarded – she became a peer advocate in 2015 and completed training to become a PROS counselor in January of this year. Through her writing, Ms. Benjamin hopes to shed some light on the experience of psychosis and the long road back to recovery.

“At once two worlds collided and quickly, uninvited, came the truth and I moved out, removed doubt, and came back to the future. Grounded now and in laser focus/I discarded but regarded my state of psychosis.”

About Northwell Health
Northwell Health is New York State’s largest health care provider and private employer, with 23 hospitals, 665 outpatient facilities and more than 18,500 affiliated physicians. We care for over two million people annually in the New York metro area and beyond, thanks to philanthropic support from our communities. Our 66,000 employees – 16,000-plus nurses and 4,000 employed doctors, including members of Northwell Health Physician Partners – are working to change health care for the better. We’re making breakthroughs in medicine at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research. We're training the next generation of medical professionals at the visionary Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell and the Hofstra Northwell School of Graduate Nursing and Physician Assistant Studies. 

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Michelle Pinto
516-465-2649
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