Image: Safe Space Radio

Hope and Grace Initiative Fund Spotlight: Safe Space Radio

April 26, 2017

One of our favorite aspects of the hope & grace initiative is our grant recipients. As you know, 1% of every product sold goes to the hope & grace initiative fund, and annually we give grants to charitable initiatives and institutions that focus on mental health. We’re proud to start introducing you to those spectacular programs with our first profile piece on Safe Space Radio.

We reached out to founder Anne Hallward, M.D., for the history and future of this impactful, thought-provoking radio program that has helped so many deal with the tough thoughts and conversations around mental health. In her own words, this is what the power of storytelling can do:

 

“My name is Anne Hallward. I am a psychiatrist in private practice in Portland, ME, originally from Montreal, CA. I trained at Harvard Medical School and then went on to work on the faculty for a few years after my fellowship and residency.

While I was there, I co-founded several new classes on Death and Dying, Cultural Competence, Sexuality and Psychiatric Interviewing. At some point, when I finished my studies and was writing up my resume, I wondered how I would unify all these things into one thread, and it suddenly dawned on me: my real-life passion was creating safe forums to talk about emotionally-charged, difficult subjects, topics that are intellectually and emotionally challenging. Ultimately, years later, that epiphany would lead to the creation of Safe Space Radio.

After I had been in private practice about six years, I noticed that regardless of the issue that brought someone to my office —depression, PTSD, addiction, a parent with mental illness, etc. — there was always one common, unifying struggle: shame. In some way, each person felt like there was something wrong with them, that they were defective, weak, a failure. They all felt they couldn’t reveal themselves completely to anyone or they would be rejected.

This shame was the greatest source of my patients’ suffering, the isolating feeling of needing to hide the thing they were struggling with the most. I realized we really needed a public health initiative to address shame and stigma, a public health approach that did NOT involve visual exposure. Suddenly, it occurred to me: radio was a perfect way. It’s an incredibly private medium, and a powerful way to potentially reach millions of people for free in privacy. One of the biggest barriers to getting treatment for mental health is the fear of labeling, the fear of stigma. With radio, you can learn about mental illness in complete privacy without the same fear of labeling or stigma. In 2008, Safe Space Radio was born, and we’ve been airing radio shows ever since. We’ve aired 300 shows so far, and all the episodes are available free on our site as well as via podcast mediums like Stitcher and iTunes.

The general concept of the show is stigma reduction and healing through storytelling. In a way, the only way to the mind is through the heart. The statistics on mental illness don’t make a difference; people can be remarkably unmoved by facts and statistics. But a story that is courageously vulnerable? We never forget it; we carry it around and think about it. So, my initial vision was personal stories told in a courageously open way to help reduce stigma and create a personal connection.

I really believe the most personal experience is the most universal. We once did a piece on women refugees arriving in Maine. Maine, of course, is the whitest state in the nation, but we have a lot of women from Somalia, Burundi, and Iraq who are not only different in appearance, culture, and language but who have suffered terrible trauma. Asylum seekers are here because they have been horribly wounded: torture, rape – just brutal. After the piece aired, we conducted an anonymous poll of our listeners and asked if they could identify with our speaker. 93% of these individuals – most of whom had ever been to Africa or the Middle East, knew very little of their religion, language, or culture — felt they could identify with her story. That’s what we’re trying to do on Safe Space Radio: we want people to realize we have more in common than we think.

I’m sure you’ve heard the quote that you can’t hate someone once you’ve heard their story. Most of the 300 shows have been about mental illness, but we’ve also done a lot of shows about homophobia, racism, refugees, and veterans. I like to call the show an ‘empathy expander.’ We hope listeners who struggle with mental health issues will feel less alone and able to talk about their problems, and we hope those without a personal connection to these issues will leave with greater understanding and empathy.

The most thrilling moments for me are when the show serves as a catalyst for courageous conversations. We created a special last year on suicide among LGBTQ+ teens, because other than returning veterans they’re the highest-risk group for suicide in the country. While the special was airing, I started to get messages from teenagers who were in the backseat of their parent’s car saying, ‘I’m listening to the show right now with my mom, thank you so much. We’re finally going to be able to talk about this,’ or ‘I heard your show today for the first time with my dad in the car, and today was the first time he asked me if I ever felt depressed or suicidal or bullied. Today is the first time we’re able to talk about it.

We also created an award-winning show on dementia with the help of the hope & grace initiative funding, and a gentleman called from VA weeping with gratitude because it was the first time he had ever heard anyone articulate his experience with his own grandfather. He was never previously able to express the difficulty of loving and losing someone all at the same time.

We also love when people connect to each other through the show. People can post comments about the show and reply to each other to talk about issues together. It helps people not feel so isolated, which is such a huge risk for suicide, that sense of isolation.

I’m just so happy that the show is doing what it’s supposed to do. I’m happy that people felt more heard, more understood, and that it’s a platform to help people talk about the things they haven’t been able to talk about. That makes me so happy, I can hardly tell you.

The future is bright for Safe Space Radio. We went from a small, weekly, local radio show in Portland, ME, to moving toward national recognition. The caregiving and dementia special was made possible by hope & grace initiative funding, and it became a nationally-broadcast show, which was a huge breakthrough for us. We’re currently working on brief features on mental health issues for women veterans to pitch to NPR’s Morning Edition, which would potentially expand our reach to 22 million people. We’re also crafting hour-long pilots for a new show we hope to pitch to NPR stations starting in the Northeast that expands on our half-hour interview format to a full hour with additional content on a centralized theme or topic. We’re excited to expand on recommendations and extra discussion around interview topics, like how to talk to your kids, your boss or coworkers about depression. Our first pilot is about saying ‘I’m sorry,’ and it includes really moving stories about apologies that have gone well, some that were not so great, and how we can apologize better.

If you’re someone dealing with a mental health condition, the first thing you should know is you’re not alone: many others are on this path you’re on. Second, reach out and get help, even if it’s a call to your primary care physician for a referral to a good therapist or psychiatrist. Third, get connected. On Safe Space Radio’s website, there are shows about pretty much every type of struggle. When you start to hear the voices of others and their struggles, it will make it easier to tell your own story. Fourth, seek resources for your issues. NAMI has amazing support groups and resources, there are chat rooms online, wonderful books – just don’t suffer alone. That’s what’s dangerous. Reach out for help, reach out to peers who get it – those two things can be lifesaving.

Finally, know there is hope. There is absolutely a way to feel better with everything you’re struggling with, whether that’s medication or having a place to go on a regular basis where you feel deeply heard and understood. We know for certain from brain scans that talk therapy alone changes your brain. We know there is help and hope. So, be encouraged.

Safe Space Radio is on the web at safespaceradio.com. You can listen to all 300 of our shows there, you can download them on your phone for your commute, your workout, or whenever you’d like to listen throughout the day. Look for us on your local NPR station we hope as soon as fall/winter 2017. We’re excited about the future, and we’re here to help.”