Thoughts / cards
One of my favouritest things is to find things on the Internet that put a smile in my tummy. These things usually also involve sending mail. They definitely, always involve something quite beautiful.
The first one is postcrossing. I am still surprised to learn, that not everyone in the entire world has not yet signed up to be a postcrossing member. This project allows people to receive postcards from all over the world. The main idea is that if you send a postcard, you will receive one back. From someone you don’t know. From somewhere completely random in the world. What an idea! And what an experience! I have only been postcrossing for a year now, but so far I have sent (and received) postcards (to and from) the US, China, Taiwan, the Netherlands, Finland, Belarus, India, Russia, Malaysia. Austria, Ireland (I received a postcard from Ireland’s top postcrosser who had sent over 100 00 postcards!), and it goes on. I have also had the opportunity to request that if people feel comfortable, and ONLY if they feel comfortable, that when writing to me they share their thoughts, feelings, experiences about mental illness with me. That’s been fascinating. But probably worthy of an entire blog post to itself. Find it here - www.postcrossing.com.
Another wonderful thing I came across quite recently is CBA – or Card Bombers Anonymous. And this is genius. This is a club and at the start of each month, the ‘captain’ will email all the members of the CBA the name and postal address of the card bombing recipient. All the members will then send anonymously a card, letter, picture, quote, kind word or postcard to the recipient. The recipient is then no doubt inundated with love and kindness in the mail by complete strangers. I have only just signed up and have not yet had the pleasure of my first card bombing experience, but gee I am excited. You can sign up here, and if you know of someone who is in need of some snail mail love you can even nominate them to be the recipient. Totes awes.
And then there is my universe idol – Emily McDowell. This woman is an absolute genius and has such a beautiful, relatable and hopeful way with words that I can’t help to just want to be her. For a minute, I did hesitate about mentioning a major greeting card competitor in this post when we’re just starting out, but then I remembered how much I adore her work. Shortly prior to the Hope Street Cards launch, Emily unleashed her ‘Empathy Cards’ which are cards for serious illness, cancer, grief and loss. Created in the belief that there are better, more authentic ways to communicate about sickness and suffering, these cards do communicating crap stuff beautifully. If you haven’t already, check them out.
So thank you Internet. Not just for the cat videos and the ability to put an end to late night obnoxious arguments about things. But thank you for helping us to connect to nice things in the post.
I’m going to be entirely honest here. It wasn’t brilliant genius that led me to the name of this little card business. It was a bike ride home on a miserably cold Canberra evening. The idea for Hope Street Cards had been with me for some time, however I had been struggling with finding a name that wasn’t naff, lame or tacky. I mean, my sister’s hipster reputation was at stake here! I remember having a very negative internal dialogue with myself that evening regarding the state of the weather and catching myself attempting to disrupt these thought patterns as I cycled into my street. Thinking ‘Oh well, at least I get to live on a street called ‘Hope Street’’. Full disclosure. I got the name from my address at the time.
The more I thought about it though, the more totally appropriate it was. Because there really is not much more important a thing than hope.
I find it really difficult to concretely define or describe hope with the poetic justice that I feel it deserves. The dictionary says that ‘hope is an optimistic attitude of mind based on an expectation of positive outcomes related to events and circumstances in one’s life or the world at large’. Thanks dictionary. The psychologist Charles Snyder associated hope to the existence of a goal, combined with a determined plan for reaching that goal. Thus an essential ingredient for future planning, motivation and change. But it just feels like so much more than that.
Viktor Frankl, Austrian neurologist and psychologist, chronicled his experiences as a concentration camp inmate in his book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ (1963). Frankl’s observations and writings led him to discover the importance of finding meaning in all forms of existence, even in Auschwitz, which create a reason to continue living. He stated “It’s a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future” (p. 115). He warned that “the sudden loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect” (p. 120) and observed that “the prisoner who had lost his faith in the future – his future – was doomed” (p. 117). Prisoners who Frankl observed as having lost hope reportedly died within a short time. That’s pretty massive.
And more recent, empirically-validated research backs the importance of hope up. Hopeful individuals have been found to make healthier lifestyle choices in areas such as exercise, eating and drinking (Peterson, 1988). They recover from illness and injury more effectively (Snyder, Rand & Sigmon, 2005) and have increased life expectancies (Maruta, Colligan, Malinchoc, Offord, 2000). They manifest less depression and anxiety symptoms (Cheavens, Feldman, Gum, Michael & Snyder, 2006) and experience increased positive mental health, personal adjustment, life satisfaction (Gilman, Dooley & Florell, 2006; Kwon, 2002) and sense of meaning in life (Feldman & Snyder, 2005). Obviously the benefits of possessing a hopeful approach to life are numerous and noteworthy.
During my first year of clinical psychology training, the importance of ‘instilling a sense of hope’ in conjunction with the client was taught as one of the key ingredients for providing successful psychotherapy. Some consider hope as one of the four most significant common factors in good therapy outcome (Hubble, Duncan & Miller, 1999). Irvin Yalom a guru in the world of psychotherapy teachings identified the instillation of hope as the first curative factor in effective group psychotherapy. Esso Lette observed: “Hope is crucial to recovery, for our despair disables us more than our disease ever could”.
During my very early training this knowledge made me feel slightly relieved. Being overwhelmed by anxiety at providing psychological treatment whilst feeling entirely inadequate, underprepared and paranoid I would end up ruining someone’s life, I thought, ‘well at the very least I think I can help someone feel hopeful’. And for the most part I could. There was one time though, when that sense of hope was so incredibly difficult to cultivate. Where the empathic response I had to a client’s traumatic past and current internal experiences left me feeling devoid of hope. I too felt hopeless. And it was gut-wrenching. And terrifying. And so incredibly sad.
That experience really affected me, because the guiding principle of recovery from a mental illness is hope – the belief that it is possible for someone to regain a meaningful life despite a serious mental health condition. And that recovery is not a linear process. Or an end result. It’s a process, ongoing adventure, one step at a time, that sometimes looks and feels like one big mess and is completely different for everyone. And it’s really, really, really hard work. Because there’s so many things you have to do that you often just don’t want to do (e.g., get adequate sleep, exercise, challenge unhelpful thinking patterns). And you have to do these things with no absolute certainty that doing these things will make you feel better. You need courage and commitment and a bucketload of hope.
But for someone who is experiencing a mental health condition there can be an overwhelming sense of hopelessness, so where can that foundation for recovery come from? At the launch of Hope Street Cards, Clinical Psychologist Jo beautifully described the benefits of having someone else “hold on” to that hope for you, when you yourself can’t. And I totally agree. At my darkest times my therapist – let’s call him Dr M – has held the hope for me. I’m not even sure he knows he’s doing it. But he will refuse to engage with me in any particularly ridiculous notions of my self-worth I might have. He does this very subtly and tenderly, but it is a gentle reminder that he doesn’t believe in such thoughts, he believes in me. And at times this has been enough.
At other times it’s been my family and my friends who have carried that hope for me. Just by being there they provided the gift of faith that I might be able to live well again. And what does that gift feel like? I think Emily Dickenson may have described hope best: “Hope is the thing with feathers”. And those feathers tickle your heart a little.
Smart things I quoted:
Frankl, V. E. (1963). Man’s search for meaning. New York: Pocket Books.
Yalom, I. (1985). The theory and practice of group psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books, Inc.
Peterson, C. (1988). Explanatory style as a risk factor for illness. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 12, 117-130.
Snyder, C. R., Rand, K. L., & Sigmon,D. R. (2005). Hope theory: A member of the positive psychology family. In Snyder, C. R. and Lopez, S. J. (Eds.). Handbok of positive psychology. (pp. 257 -267). New York: Oxford University Press.
Maruta, T., Colligan, R. C., Malinchoc, M., & Offord, K. P. (2000). Optimists vs. pessimists: Survival rate among medical patients over a 30-year period. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 75, 140-143.
Cheavens, J. S., Feldman, D. B., Gum, A., Michael, S. T., & Snyder, C. R. (2006). Hope therapy in a community sample: A pilot investigation. Social Indicators Research, 77, 61-78.
Gilman, R., Dooley, J., & Florell, D. (2006). Relative levels of hope and their relationship with academic and psychological indicators among adolescents. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 25, 166-178.
Feldman, D. B. & Snyder, C. R. (2005). Hope and the meaningful life. Theoretical and empirical associations between goal directed thinking and life meaning. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 24, 401-421.
I have always loved to send a card. When I moved out of home, over 15 years ago to attend Uni, my sister – Trudy – and I began the ‘card game’. The premise is pretty simple. Send each other really, really good cards as frequently as possible. We’ve been playing it ever since. It’s a fabulous game for so many reasons. Firstly, it involves surprise mail in the post. Breaking up the monotony of the bank statements and electricity bills. Secondly, it is hilarious. The range of quirky, funny and downright ridiculous cards that are available for sale is incredible. And thirdly, it will ALWAYS make you feel a little bit better than however you were feeling just moments before. Always.
Card sources: Popsy Greeting Cards, An April Idea, La La Land and Able and Game
As a result, we both have an excellent working knowledge of the current Australian greeting card market. And for your make-you-feel-better-in-the-general-sense card, it’s really pretty good.
But a couple of years ago the son of a close friend of mine attempted suicide. And I didn’t quite know what to do to show my support. As someone who had worked in the mental health sector for a number of years, I knew the right things to ask her about the situation. I asked how she was sleeping. I checked on the level of care and treatment he was being given. I said I was sorry and I asked if there was anything I can do. But as a friend I wanted her to know that I cared and that I was thinking of her. And so I joked with another friend that Hallmark should release a “I’m so sorry your child tried to kill himself” card. But it really wasn’t funny at all. I had never in all my greeting card buying experience come across a card specifically for any type of mental illness and that didn’t seem quite right. And thus the seed for Hope Street Cards was sown.
That same year my Mum was diagnosed with breast cancer. And whilst I was able to visit her on occasion, the 1000 kilometre distance between us made providing support somewhat more difficult. So I took to doing what I do best – sending cards. And I was blown away with the range of cancer-related cards available. From the “Fuck Cancer” card to the “If cancer was a man, I’d kick him in the balls” to the sympathetically appropriate “Sorry about your tit”. And I sent these cards off with delight.
But it was all very interesting. There was a time not that long ago when cancer was taboo. We wouldn’t tell someone we had it, let alone go out of way to support someone with it. But it appears we’re not scared anymore. And that’s great. But why the injustice? When I google mental illness card I get something quite disturbing – a card with a picture of a sticky tape dispenser. And the words – Put yourself back together! How come I can send hilarious, supportive and hopeful cancer cards, but can’t find an appropriate mental illness card. And so now the Hope Street Cards idea had formed and now I was a little angry that mental illness was not only suffering from stigma in the greater community, but also in the business of get well cards.
And then not long after I got sick. Another episode of a recurring mental illness. My third. Off I went to a private psychiatric hospital. Again. And this time I felt another anomaly. Often when I get admitted to hospital I feel the odd one out. A mental health worker becoming the mental health patient. But this time I noticed that I was one of the very few patients in the hospital who had flowers next to their bed. Who regularly received mail. Had visitors attending at all available times. And had cards of support adorning the walls. I was a statistical outlier in this hospital. I had outward displays of social support everywhere. And the research supports this.
Studies have shown that only 1 in 4 people who have experienced a mental health issue will receive a get well card during their illness, despite 80% of these individuals reporting that a card would have been beneficial to their recovery. And social support has been found to have numerous beneficial effects on recovery. Low levels of social support has been found to increase the chances of experiencing a mental illness episode and decreased chance of recovery. Whereas high levels of social support have been correlated with shorter major depressive episodes in women and predict 6-month symptom recovery. Furthermore, studies of individuals who have experienced ‘severe’ mental illnesses (schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorders, bipolar disorder or affective psychosis) found that both social network size and social support were correlated with better recovery and a reduction in symptoms. Despite this, studies have repeatedly shown that psychiatric inpatients receive about half as many cards and gifts when compared to medical inpatients. So I am just incredibly rarer and lucky. The result of having friends and family who didn’t shy away and were willing to show their love and support no matter what. And I gained so very much from this love and support. I had hope. And I knew I was loved. And being stuck in an episode of mental illness, these things were vital for me. I could not be more grateful for the support I received from those around me during this time and it is one of the reasons that I am where I am today.
And so here we are with Hope Street Cards. A very small attempt at making it a little bit easier for a friend or family member to support their loved one with a mental illness. Our dream is that each Hope Street Card enables the donor to learn more about mental illness and to show a loved one they care and will support them through their recovery in a non-judgmental, empathic and hopeful way. Showing someone that you’re thinking of them and that you care can really go a long way.
The awesome team at the Melbourne Leader had a chat with Trudy this week about our upcoming business launch. Meeting at our creative headquarters in North Fitzroy (aka Trudy's place), the full article can be read here.
Photo credit: Martin Reddy (Source: Melbourne Leader)