Toivo Center Brings Mind/Body Practices for Mental Health to Connecticut



There’s a place nestled within Hartford’s south end where holistic health meets mental health. Toivo, meaning hope in Finnish, exists as open space inside a store front where healing magic begins. No one is turned away because of race, age, religion, culture, sexual orientation and income level. Mental health diagnosis labels do not matter here and one can participate whether one has a diagnosis or not. “Meditation and yoga are for everyone,” said Hilary Bryant, yoga instructor and Holistic Health coordinator at Toivo.

Toivo is a project of Advocacy Unlimited, an organization started in 1994 to provide education programs about advocacy for people with mental illness.

“This is about breaking barriers having people separated from each other come together and heal,” said Linda Lentini, general manager at Advocacy Unlimited.

Lentini facillitates programs at the Toivo center as well as on inpatient psych units.

“A lot of people have never been introduced to mind/body practices simply because of limited funds,” she said.

Through funding from the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS), Lentini brings mind/body practices to two psych units in Hartford and Bridgeport for about one hour a session. When patients are released, they can come to Toivo and continue if they want.

The Toivo center on Franklin avenue offers workshops and classes in meditation, yoga, nutrition, fitness, walking/running groups, support groups, writing, aromatherapy, qi gong, chair yoga, Zumba, and a Sydan circle. The Hearing Voices Network meets regularly in their space too.

Trained in aromatherapy and healing trauma, Lentini offers two workshops at Toivo. One is on beyond anger and violence and the other is based on author Brene Brown’s book the Gift of Imperfection. In April, she’ll be trained by Louise Hay in a You can Heal your Life workshop and will soon be able to offer this to people.

Toivo was founded by Deron Drumm, executive director of Advocacy Unlimited. Drumm saw a world where mental health consumers received services but were dying 25 years younger than others because of weight gain, diabetes, and medication side effects.

“He wanted people to take ownership and learn ways to heal themselves,” said Kelvin Young, director of Toivo.

At first, the center started out small with one or two in the classes but word of mouth grew the classes to 15 participants and more. Young and Bryant presented Toivo at health fairs, mental health organizations, community organizations and on social media. This helped grow the idea for Toivo as a healing space.

“Toivo gives people the tools they need to utilize when they are in emotional distress,” said Young.

Bryant said “There is a shift in the mental health system in Connecticut where people need the holistic approach. We need to do more. It is important people take responsibility to engage minds and nourish souls.”

The neat part of Toivo is everyone who works for Toivo connects with the people attending classes through their own shared experiences.

Bryant spent her teen years in “a state of deep sadness and lack of self-love”. She was in and out of psych units, halfway houses, and outpatient programs struggling with an eating disorder and self-harm issues. After multiple suicide attempts, things shifted and she found yoga.

“The challenge for me is to quiet my mind and be in my body,” Bryant said.
Young came to Toivo from a different perspective. His experience of depression and anxiety caused him to reach out to substances including cocaine and heroin.

“I dropped out of high school, was arrested, was on probation and in and out of treatment,” said Young.

Young went to prison four times. It was his last time in prison that he made the choice to change. He was a father of a daughter now and getting older and did not want to show her this kind of life. He learned about the transformative powers of meditation and yoga and gave it a try. He came out and wanted to give back what he had learned. That’s why he’s now director of Toivo.

Toivo’s classes suggest a $5 donation, but one can pay what they can or nothing at all. To find out more about Toivo Center, click

The Obsessions of My Compulsions

There’s something lucky about air tracing certain numbers over and over on the exact day they appear on the calendar. There’s something not cool about being seen on video at a town meeting you’re reporting on for a newspaper fingering your eyebrows as if their static gives you a cosmic high, an infinite orgasm. You’ve never been one to judge people unless they do something rude to you but in tenth grade at an arts camp you rub your hands up against a wall every time you have an encounter with the camp cook. He’s actually a nice man who let you play his guitar it’s just there’s something weird/gross about him you just can’t name. Actually, it’s not about him at all. It’s about me.

Around the same time in my youth that my bipolar symptoms were surfacing, I was privy to strange, obsessive thoughts that might have been obsessive compulsive disorder. I’ve never spoken to anyone about these thoughts until now on this blog. The OCD symptoms comes and goes with me and it’s never been completely disabling. But when I experience a periodic onset, I have trouble getting the thoughts to stop.

I don’t see the need to bring this up with my psychiatrist. I have learned cognitive behavioral techniques from many therapists that I also use to combat my obsessive brain. I also find meditation and yoga work well for me in calming my mind down in one of these states. It’s not about controlling my thoughts; it’s about letting them go. If I am in the middle of a repeticious cycle of pen twirling or air writing, I put the pen down and lean into meditation. I chant let it go while my eyes are closed over and over until the original compulsion passes. Once I open my eyes again, I am free of those thoughts. Sometimes I do this activity a few times over the course of a day.

In high school, I thought I had AIDS. I didn’t actually have the disease but my mind became obsessed that I would blurt out to someone “I have AIDS.” This became an endless obsession to protect my reputation at school that I would say the wrong thing to people. Public speaking became a nightmare. I dealt by turning inward and to my close circle of friends. It inhibited me from truly particpating in school activities because I was afraid of what my mind would blurt out. It’s almost an internal Tourrette’s.

Writing helps me sort out the truth between the thoughts in my head and what’s really happening, what I am experiencing. Keeping a journal of freewriting that no one will read in a composition book helps me self-diagnose when these onsets are occuring. Just like when I keep a mood chart and journal for my bipolar symptoms, this allows me to see when these thoughts are occuring and their duration. It also forces me to see what is real and what isn’t. Stress triggers them as much as idleness when I have been periodically unemployed. However, they’ve been most pervasive when I was working full-time.

This is not to say that my job is the trigger. I like what I do and do it well. I have found ways to minimize these thoughts when they come up and make their occurance very infrequent. These thoughts have forced me to slow my manic brain down and focus on one thing at a time. I pay detailed attention to copy editing and it has forced me to see how the details make up the larger picture.

Author Melody Moezzi Talks about Mental Health and Muslims

First ran on the International Bipolar Foundation’s blog

I interviewed Melody Moezzi, an Iranian-American bipolar Muslim feminist activist, an attorney, a writer and author of the award-winning books War on Error: Real Stories of American Muslims and Haldol and Hyacinths: A Bipolar Life. She blogs for BP Magazine as well as the Huffington Post and Ms. We talked about Moezzi’s latest book Haldol and Hyacinths and Muslims and mental health.
AZ: Why did you write Haldol and Hyacinths?

MM: I basically wrote the book I wished existed when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The memoirs I was reading after I was diagnosed were great but most of them were written by white women and I didn’t fully relate to their experiences and I think there are a lot of us who are already living a bipolar existence culturally speaking so the diagnosis isn’t just a clinical one. For me, it was something that just became really obvious that this has been my cultural experience all along.

There’s a very clear distinction…that’s something I have always experienced and there is obviously a huge distinction when it comes to clinical bipolarity. I’m not saying my cultural experience caused my clinical one but I am saying I saw as a writer it as a metaphor that was pretty glaring that I couldn’t ignore and I didn’t want too.

I’ve been very blessed but at the same time I know most people do not have the same experiences that I do and have been lucky enough to have had.

AZ: What was your experience as an Iranian-American in the mental health system?

MM: I was lucky because both my parents were physicians so class also plays into this. I was lucky I had them stand up for me and my family support in general. My best friend growing up is a psychiatrist so I was lucky to have her. I’ve had a lot of advantages that other people don’t have yet still the experiences I had in the hospital were definitely different. I pray as a Muslim so there was one facility where every time I prayed it was a sign of hyper-religiosity. I was praying three times a day. But they kept considering it hyper-religiosity. Any Christian who is praying is not getting that. There’s data that proves faith can be incredibly helpful in recovery. For me, it wasn’t necessarily seen that way and I don’t think there was an overt discrimination on that end but it defintely colored the perception that I was overly religious because it was a religion that they didn’t understand.

AZ: How was your faith helpful in your recovery?

MM: I found faith incredibly helpful in my recovery. I’m of the belief that people with certain psychiatric conditions have a lot of problems that other people don’t have. But a lot of us are what I interrpret as being spiritually gifted. There’s a disconnect between seeing this condition of bipolar disorder type 1 as being a gift but also seeing it as a clinical curse. I treat it and I know it needs medication. I know how to treat my condition. I’ve always been the kind of person that knew where I came from and knew there was something greater than me. I’ve had two mystical experiences one was during a manic episode and the other one was during what probably was a hypomanic episode but it wasn’t diagnosed at the time. I’m really grateful for those experiences. I also see that some people can have trouble reconciling that expecially with the Western medical establishment. They have a lot of trouble accepting that something can be both clinical and spiritual. But that’s been my experience. It took me a long time to accept both sides of that because I’m science oriented. I believe in the power of medicine. I know that medication is necessary in my case but I see it as being a kind of spiritual gift as well.
AZ: What was it like writing a memoir and being vulnerable?

MM: What’s hard for me is that my first book was about young Muslim Americans and I did fear that because I had come out as I had tried to break stereotypes around what it meant to be Muslim, particularly Muslim American. I didn’t want people to think she’s Muslim so she’s crazy or she’s crazy because she’s Muslim [when writing Haldol and Hyacinths]. I wasn’t keen on this about myself as someone who has been an activist since I was a kid I couln’t really experience what I did in the hospital and see the way the American mental health system works and just be silent and not do anything aobut it. I think the best way to do something about it is to share your story. That can be scary. For me, it turned out what I needed to do and I’m glad I did it. But I don’t doubt for a second that doors have been closed because I am so public about having a mental health condition. I don’t doubt for a second that there have been doors which have opened because of it.
AZ: What mental health barriers face Muslims today?
MM: I think there is a greater stigma in the Muslim community that even if you have access to care you might not seek it. Within a lot of different faith communities there is this impression that you can pray your way out of mental illness as opposed to any other illnesses that need to be treated. There are also some people who have the perception that not only are they not like other illnesses that it is some sort of punishment or some sort of curse. Like I said, I see it as being the opposite in being a spiritual gift. Look at the mystics of the world… I’m writing a book right now about Rumi. Rumi was reciting poetry and singing out loud in public. I don’t doubt that someone like him would have been thrown in a psychiatric hospital if it were a different time and a different place. I see people who have minds who work differently as people who have access to different levels of consciousness that might not be convenient to the world we live in right now but that doesn’t make those levels of consciousness any less true.

MM: I think part of it is once you belong to any vulnerable group or a group that is often misrepresented it becomes harder to seek help. Data shows that racism and other isms affects our mental health. We need it more than ever right now yet we are least likely to seek it because of the fact we don’t want to be further discriminated against. As an Iranian American Muslim woman and a feminist, there are enough reasons for people to discriminate against me and then for me to be public about having a mental health condition gives people another reason. That is why people in the Muslim community are hesitant to seek help and within our faith community surveillance is a problem. It’s easy to say someone is paranoid but then there is the reality that the NYPD was actually infiltraiting mosques. That’s a scary reality that has been proven. It’s not paranoia when they are actually out to get you. I think that’s the position that most Muslims find themsleves in.
AZ: What would make more Muslims feel comfortable about seeking treatment?

MM: I think what have to happen is first of all it would have to come from our own communities. My hope is that more Muslims go into the fields of psychology, psychiatry and neurology. The one thing I worry about is the white savior…nobody can fix it for us. We have to do it within our own community. Not that there aren’t white Muslims but within different Muslim communities we don’t need people coming in from the outside saying this is what mental health is and this is how you treat it. I think we need to look from within. For example, the past few years I spoke at the Muslim Mental Health conference which I think is a fantastic initative that has helped enormously in getting mental health conditions more accepted in the Muslim community. Initiatives like that led by Muslim psychiatrists and psychologists then it suddenly makes a difference. You don’t feel so nervous revealing to your community that you have some sort of mental health condition when there are people who are prominent in your community who are saying not only is there nothing to be ashamed of but it’s something that you deserve to get treatment for.
AZ: What mental health issues do refugees face and how can we help them?

MM:The refugee situation and I don’t say refugee crisis because the way that we paint the picture makes a big difference. Certain members of the media has painted the picture about refugees in Europe is that there a crisis, they’re a problem. I think they are a huge opportunity. I think there are people who are desperate to get out of war torn countries, often war torn countries because Western countries have caused those problems. You can’t divorce the fact that the US and the UK have been so involved in spreading wars in the Middle East and then you have all these refugees. It’s no surprise that this would happen. I think it’s really important in terms of mental health issues to have members of the community leading effort and others being allies. It’s really important to have members of the community helping who speak the languages of the people who are refugees. I’ve seen people come in and trying to help a situation and making it worse because they don’t understand a certain culture or language.

MM: A lot people fail to understand the trauma that comes with that kind of experience. Whether someone develops PTSD or not, there’s a great deal of trauma associated with it, for even the youngest. I was born in the United States but as I watch the stories of these refugees, I relate to them in a way from a perpective of transgenerational trauma that has nothing to do with the personal experience I remember but everything to do with the personal experience my family has had while I was young. I think of those children being born in refugee camps and I wonder what there experiences will be even if they’re given asylum. They still need support and services and mental health is huge when I talk about support. Suicide is a huge risk.

Student Unraveled: Bipolar On Campus

I paced frenetically all the while talking raucously into the telephone outside the college newspaper office. What began as a routine phone call to find out some more information for a story winds into a diatribe about how I planned to take over the Massachusetts Democratic Party and enact my politics of the impossible agenda. Thrown into the conversation at random are quick sexual jokes and other random puns leaving the person on the other end of the phone line confused and frightened.

Hanging up the phone, I stride into the Student Center lounge. I interrupt a student studying and begin a conversation. My mind races to my next thought and the next and the next.

Neurotransmitters surge.

Perhaps, you know of someone like me. I was an editor on the college paper, held internships at three major papers, a dean’s list student. I interned at a Massachusetts senator’s re-election campaign, was active in the woman’s center, a member of the campus philosophy society, wrote six to eight stories a week for the campus paper, and worked part-time jobs for extra cash.

A woman about town, I was seen at every political conference or social event. I was the first one at the gym every morning exercising for one hour on the treadmill and awake far into the dawn hours scribbling poetry.

One moment, my friends would be walking with me and I would leap onto the MIT bridge and walk the railing. The next moment, I was ready to jump off into the icy waters of the Charles River.

College life can be a bundle of stress to most students. However, for students like me, who have the biochemical disorder manic depression or bipolar disorder, the pressures of college may become impossible when you are dealing with mood swings, psychotic thoughts, and suicidal ideations. Imagine trying to study for a test in Espanol while three or four distinct lines of thought (all unrelated) race through your mind. Now, imagine more thoughts keep coming and coming until nothing makes sense anymore. Or try reading Shakespeare or sociology texts, when your mind has gone black.

It wasn’t easy for me to recognize that I need help as my mood rose. It was even harder for me to ask for help. No one at the school could offer the proper intervention because no one completely understood my situation. Having gone to one session at the college counseling office intent on discussing these issues, I groped with words for a half-hour and left.

Then, one-day my mind went black in the middle of photography class. The expensive camera I was so thrilled to buy and use suddenly became too complex to operate. I lost all clarity, couldn’t think, write, or concentrate on anything.

I, then, went to the computer lab and posted a suicidal message to an online group. I went back to my single dorm room, locked my door, turned the music up louder, cut my wrists continuously until I fell asleep on the tile floor.

The college RA escorted me to the emergency room after a raucous protest from me. Dressed all in black, like some Goth poster child, alone in a cubicle-sized room, I tried to convince the ER psychiatrists that I was not crazy, not even depressed, that the email I sent the group was a joke. Unfortunately, for me, I was talking millions of miles a minute, and I was not making much sense bringing up a lot of political names and celebrities, all of whom I had worked for or met during the previous semester. Nevertheless, they sent me to Mclean, the esteemed psychiatric hospital in Belmont Massachusetts.

The psychiatrists at Mclean called it an acute manic depressive episode, otherwise called bipolar disorder type 1. The episiodes had been reoccurring in various forms all fall semester—although, they went largely unnoticed by me as my moods fluctuated like the Atlantic off Nantucket. I spent eight days running in dark tunnels, watching another college girl break into multiple personalities, listening to tales of electroshock and a woman say she was schizo and manic, which baffled me then, but I later learned was schizoaffective disorder. Although, the hospital recommended I spend the rest of the semester resting at home, I chose to go back to campus under the care of an off-campus therapist and psychopharmacologist. Back on campus, I spent much time recovering from the stigma of hospitalization and mental illness. Rumors abounded.

College students with mental illness must believe in themselves, that they are unique, valuable and worth the effort, they must know their legal rights as stated in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as well as their school’s policies. They must remain clear, calm, and persistent when advocating for themselves. I wrote my symptoms, goals, dreams down on paper in my journal. In the journal, I taped a mood chart pulled off the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance’s web site. This journal later gave my therapist and I evidence when issues and incidents came up and the deans became involved.

There is a wonderful resource in the organization Active Minds which helps students start chapters on their campuses to educate other students about stigma and what mental illness feels like.

Bipolar Disorder & Focussing

I know it’s not the usual symptom of bipolar but I have trouble with focussing my attention. Of course, the manic state leaves one scattered and the depression makes one foggy. However, I am talking about a lack of focus when on my meds. It seems I have trouble sitting down to projects and finishing them. I walk around the house looking at projects, talking about them but can’t seem to get anything done. I have writing projects just waiting for me to get started. Then, there are the times I can hyperfocus on researching or organizing a room or drawer. This lack of focus in the inbetween states when I am not manic or depressed is what I am trying to combat.

Tips to Get You Focussed:

Breakdown each task into smaller tasks. Do the smallest part of a task first, then move to the next part.

Keep a planner. Plan your day the night before or even every Sunday plan your week. Write your appointments, exercise time, projects to be done in this place.

Avoid caffeine. In addition, to making your meds not work effectively, it makes you too jittery and scattered. Try herbal tea or hot water with lemons.

Meditate. Try a mindfulness practice for at least ten minutes a day in the morning or at night. Try meditating before you start a project. Then, just doing it.

Remember what Yoda says, “Do. There is no Try.”

Try working in an environment that is quiet, clean and minimalist such as a library.

Shut off the music. Music and podcasts infuse someone else’s ideas into our work. It’s fine if you are cleaning but for thoughty tasks, leave the radio off.

When you feel your focus slipping, count to ten and get back on track.

Remember the times you hyperfocus and analyze what works in keeping your attention. Do whatever it is to recreate this state.

Ride your period of unfocus like a wave and let it go after 60 seconds. Don’t get into an intricate daydream with it. Move on quickly and get back to task.

R.I.P. Carrie Fisher, a Champion for Mental Health



I’m not a big Star Wars fan but I do have quite a few Yoda quotes pinned to my fridge. I first saw Carrie Fisher live in her one woman show Wishful Drinking at the Hartford Stage. I was well into my journey with bipolar disorder and thrilled to see someone so vocal about her own struggle. When Fisher spoke out about her own struggles she gave permission for someone to seek help for their own mental health problems. Her story said that she had no shame about being sick and then getting well. Wishful Drinking was humorous as well as a powerful educational tool for people to see they are not alone. I just finished binge watching Lady Dynamite with Maria Bamford. Bamford also bipolar uses her tv series in much the same way to educate people about what mental illness is and take back some of the stereotypes with laughter as well. I owe a great deal of thanks to celebrities willing to be vocal about their struggles whatever they are. I know Fisher was featured on the cover of BP Magazine. She spoke about it on 60 Minutes as well. While we all can’t advocate in these ways, we bloggers, writers, and laypeople can use our time and talents to create content that engages people about mental health. Blogs, letters to the editor, lobbying legislatures, speaking out in NAMI and DBSA‘s speaker’s bureaus are all good ways to get the message out. Fisher did her part. Now, it’s time to carry on the good fight.

How Stigma Kills

People ask me why I want to write a column like this. But aren’t you embarrassed of your own story they say. My reply is always No. My story, based in the past, is merely a grounding point, a place to start, a place to show you I have experience with the issues so you can trust me better. In future columns, I’ll be seeking out others to write their stories and even doing some political/advocacy writing. I just haven’t gotton to all the possibilitiies yet. I have to slow down and write each column at a time. Back to story for a moment, the personal story can have power too. Jenn Marshall’s This is My Brave, Inc. uses storytelling and performance to change minds about mental illness. Jenn is bipolar and writes a blog about it at I ask you to go to Youtube and type in This is My Brave for a list of performances of stories they’ve done.

My point is that mental illness is only embarrassing if we let it be. Mental illness is something that happened to us, only a part of us. Used skillfully and as a tool, our stories can educate people to know they are not alone. They serve to show legislators that people with these issues are real and strong and need services not stigma. I only wish our brave veterans would share more about what they go through on the inside so the rest of the country they fought for can really, truly have their back.

In the same way that the GLBT community had to come out in order to raise awareness about who they are and their issues, the community of those with mental illness must do the same. However, we must do it in the most respectful way unlike the pride parades of the GLBT community. We must start blogs, testify in front of legislators, join organizations like This is My Brave and NAMI and share our stories with schools and colleges, tell our stories to law enforcement in order to change the way police treat the mentally ill.

And yes, our stories, parts of them that is, are embarrassing. But we can heal ourselves and just make the embarrassing parts part of what happened. We don’t have to fear the darkness. Chances are someone out there experienced the same thing and lives in the darkness every day.

Nineteenth Year Crack Up

This is a poem I wrote during graduate school for Writing. It is a fictionalized account based on what I went through in college.

Twelve years have passed since my days in Boston

Days when I sat under archways thinking,

scribbling poetry, howling sins;
the moon listened

by fracturing the sky.

I read Shakespeare, Kafka, Plath, Poe, and Woolf.

Experiencing their peaks and valleys,

in unfinished homework, lost loves,

the pressures
 building insanity in my own mind,

caused by my genetics unraveling.

There were the weeks spent without a winks sleep,

the lost time (I still cannot remember).

I would pick fights randomly. Then, it begun.

My words raced spoke miles for every minute,

(I had conspiracy theories that the 
other girls

were plotting to give my name 
to the F.B.I.

There was the Camera who only I 
heard talking.

There was anonymous sex 
in a phone booth,

the 2 o’clock phone calls, 
the midnight rollarblade races

campus by myself, shopping sprees

where I 
bought things—such as One Hundred dollars in 
journals from Borders

—all things I later 
gave away, and oh the angry emails.

There came the waking dreams, 
the crying for days on end in my dorm.

The words: I hate myself and want to die

written in a cheap scrawl in my journal.

And, at my worst, the caving walls began.

My friends feared. The tears came and came and came.

They would not stop the day I decided
to die,

to slowly Out, Out of my life.

There was the note, then the pills, then the booze.

Then, there was the trip to the big, big place 
on the hill

where writers have been before,
 a place of labels and electroshocks.

The doctors fed me Prozac and Zoloft

though I asked for a Long Island Iced Tea.

The pills made my wings take flight and objects

appear out of nowhere, in which the nurses

threatening me with leather restraints.

The doctors switched me to Lithium

calming me in days.
 And, I curled in a ball and slept,

 about what I would tell the others at school.