Volunteers in Psychotherapy: New Model in Treating Clients


Are mental illnesses born of biology or are they based upon our traumatic life experiences? Since the question is still being debated by psychiatrists and mental health professionals, then why would anybody want to use their insurance to go to therapy, risk being labeled and having the therapist report it to the third party insurer? And what if, you don’t have insurance and you can’t afford the $150 an hour cost of weekly therapy?

Dr. Richard Shulman, a licensed clinical psychologist and director of the innovative non-profit Volunteers in Psychotherapy, has the answer.

Volunteers in Psychotherapy, a Connecticut-based non-profit around for 20 years this summer nonprofit that has been serving people for 20 years now, was established by Dr. Richard Shulman as an innovative solution to help people access therapy services. All people have to do in exchange for free therapy is volunteer at a local non-profit or government agency in exchange for free therapy. They even get extra credit for donating blood or hair to organizations such as the American Red Cross and Locks of Love. So far, over 650 individuals and families have been served. These people gave more than 30,000 hours of volunteer work and earned 7,500 therapy sessions.

“If you really listen to the hints people make in therapy, wittingly and unwittingly, people are often hinting at things that are troubling and confusing. All they really need to talk about that is privacy. Increasingly, the field was acting as though there were research to show that these were biological disorders. If you think of it that way, you’re not looking for what people may be hinting at,” said Shulman. “Managed care also undermines privacy where people can broach subjects confusing and frightening to them.”

The volunteer work is part of the therapy. People choose their volunteer work based on their interests. If they are shy, they might help an environmental organization, clean trails. “People who may be isolated rub elbows with coworkers at a nonprofit.”

Grants from community foundations and agencies support VIP’s work. They have had 123 grants from 39 charitable foundations that give generously as well as over 200 individual donors. This is used to help pay therapists $55 per client per session among their other expenses like running their small office.

The model is “a person giving of themselves and symbolically paying by doing good in the community,” said Shulman.

Shulman does not believe that mental illness is caused by chemical imbalances. “People who are upset, confused, overwhelmed are presumed “ill”—not emotionally distressed but medically sick,” he wrote in an op-ed to the Connecticut Mirror in 2014.

For 20 years, Shulman served on an Institutional Review Board at Hartford Hospital’s Institute of Living where he served as a clinical psychologist. Institutional Review Boards are in place to ensure patients are told the truth about their medical or psychiatric conditions. Giving patients the ability of accurate informed consent allows them to know and weigh the risks and benefits of their options. Researchers, whether or not they are funded by drug companies and government agencies, are required to submit their research to the review board. “These scientists repeatedly admit that the conditions we mislabel “psychiatric illnesses” are simply not documented to be diseases of the body—despite decades of attempts to verify biomarkers, specific lesions or physical/chemical malfunctions that might cause these “conditions”,” Shulman wrote in the same Connecticut Mirror op-ed.

“The key is to know a person as a human being, what has happened in their life, what makes them tick,” he said.

People seeking therapy from VIP complete four hours of volunteer work at the non-profit of their choice. They ask the non-profit for a letter stating their hours, signed and made out to them…or they make a copy of their schedule or time-log. They present this letter documentation as proof to VIP for therapy services.  This way no one at the non-profit knows what the letter is used for—the stigma of therapy is avoided.

Shulman said that [in 2016] one sign of success in recent years was that their clients began reporting that they had gotten jobs either from their volunteer work or in other states. Many moved on from therapy leaving room for new clients.

“We treat people as equals. We don’t want to give something away for free. It’s an exchange,” Shulman said.

Recently after media attention, over 100 psychotherapists from other communities around the United States have contacted VIP about starting programs like it in their communities. On their web site, they have information about their export initiative which helps groups that apply to set up a similar program outside of Connecticut. So far, programs have been started in Gainsville, Florida, Bellingham, Washington, and Waterville Maine among others. “The funding is there to help people set up more non-profits like VIP,” said Shulman. VIP will consult with others looking to spread their work to other areas.

VIP is expanding and is seeking new psychologists to work with them. They are also looking for newer computer equipment and letter-sized paper to run their small office in West Hartford Center. If you would like to donate your time or make a donation, please get in touch with them.

To contact VIP about seeking therapy, setting up a non-profit like it in your area, or making a donation, call (860) 233-5115 or visit www.ctvip.org.

New Literary Works on Mental Illness and Beyond


The Collected Schizophrenias: essays is perhaps writer Esme Weijun Wang’s tour de force through life with schizoaffective disorder. This personal essay collection positions Wang into the world of literary nonfiction as she is the novelist of the Border of Paradise. Wang uses fashion motifs to talk about her high-functioning mental illness. She includes essays on schizophrenia in television and cinema. She talks about her experience volunteering at a camp for children with mental illness and how this affected her decision to have children of her own. This work is both a memoir narrative and a work of literary journalism. Wang weaves scientific studies and historical facts throughout her essays skillfully. Wang attended Yale and Stanford, has an MFA in Writing from the University of Michigan and includes an essay on her college experiences. Diagnosed with bipolar in her late teens, Wang was later re-diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. She also writes about the connection between autoimmune disorders and mental illness as Wang has late-stage Lyme disease as well. Wang has held residencies at Hedgebrook, Yaddo and other artist colonies. She will be giving an Instagram talk in April for This is My Brave. Check out their web site and/or Instagram for more information. Her web site is www.esmewang.com.


Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir is Sarah Fawn Montgomery’s eloquent exploration into the treatment of her own anxiety and of other mental health conditions. Approaching her narrative from the vantage point as someone struggling with OCD, PTSD, and anxiety, she explores how gender, class, and history treats people with mental illness. She weaves journalistic studies and historical facts into her story to create a work that documents an epidemic of our age. She strongly critiques psychotherapy from all angles. She includes an interlude about her husband’s bipolar disorder and how she deals with it as a spouse. Through examining the history of mental illness treatment, she challenges the modern narrative about mental health. She makes an important statement about the dangers of diagnosis and the complicated nature of sanity. At times her narrative is a bit unwieldy and some parts of her own story might have been better edited for more cohesion. Overall, I enjoyed her take on mental health in America, especially her feminist slant. Her web site is www.sarahfawnmontgomery.com.


I was gifted with writer Dani Shapiro’s new memoir Inheritance. It came with a tote bag advertising her new podcast “Family Secrets” directly from the publisher. Apparently, I had signed up for a contest they were having on her web site. In this fifth memoir, Shapiro discovers her father is not her biological father through DNA testing. Shapiro is the author of four other memoirs Slow Motion, Devotion, Still Writing and Hourglass. She artfully conducts an investigation into her parent’s secret—that they went to a fertility clinic to have her. Her investigation in this is not unlike her journalistic exploration in her article “The Secret Wife” in the New Yorker in 1998. “The Secret Wife” was about her father’s first marriage before her mother that no one in her family talked about. Inheritance traces Dani’s journey through fertility clinics to the trauma of finding her biological father eloquently through storyteller form. Although, kind of heavy, I highly recommend this mysterious book as a good beach read. Shapiro’s web site is www.danishapiro.com.

Bipolar and Impulsivity: A Dangerous Symptom No one likes to Talk about


In college, I once sent an inappropriate and scary chain letter email to my ex-roommate, a girl who had gotten Residence Life to give her a restraining order against me. I also used to blurt out hurtful things to other students, spend too much money on things I didn’t need, and drink too much.

Later in life, in my thirties, I sent an accusatory email to a local meteorologist whom I thought my husband was having an affair with. This was completely based on my own paranoia. Now, in my forties, impulsivity has been a cardinal symptom of my bipolar disorder type 1.

It’s more than medication.

I have found psychotherapy to help me increase my self-awareness whether I am in an episode or stable. It focuses on what triggers the impulsive behavior and when I’m about to launch into one.

Studies say there’s a link between explosive anger and impulse control. I have found when I am most rageful I tend to do impulsive things, especially when someone cuts me off behind the wheel.

BPhope.com suggests three things to do to check impulsiveness: Find a lifeguard; Find your weak points; and install braking systems. A lifeguard is someone like a therapist who will work with you to identify your triggers and establish a plan of action in staying stable. Your weak points are those that you find hard to resist. Braking systems are the techniques you use to check the impulsive idea or behavior from wreaking havoc in your life.

A technique one might use to put the brakes on impulsivity a therapist once told me would be to ask oneself Is this need to be said?, Do I really want this or the consequences that this behavior will carry? Make a pros and cons list of the action. Sometimes seeing the pros and cons it will deter you from the action.

My Depression & My Mania, poems I wrote


My Depression is a tsunami triggered by my mania sweeping away positive people, opportunities, hope, my self-worth, self-love, every shred of self-esteem. It is a cliche and an original, a tornado funnel cloud showering voices, hallucinations, self-doubt; anxiety is like a shaking earthquake.

My Depression thrives on hospitals, pills, electroshock. Suicide attempts feed its overwhelming desires. It feeds on nothing, triggered by moments of joy, stealing all feelings, robbing me of experiences of love, tears tell my story.
My Mania. Sex with strange men in phone booths, six-foot high grandiose dreams erupting into a skyscraper of desires; Ideas float in the air and come rapid-fire until there are too many to do in a day, a week, a year. Words spill from my tongue, words brilliant words, and ones I’m ashamed of now, ones that came so fast leaving me breathless and senseless. Scribbling becomes my true handwriting down every idea shooting from my brain. My Mania leaves me stymied; my behavior leaves my life in ruins. It’s seeing George Bush Sr.’s A Thousand Points of Light all connected; everything’s connected. Spending a lot of money on things I don’t need in thrift shops, Target, at the mall, or online. All things I need to accomplish lofty goals that I will forget about as I rise to the next one.


Happy Holidays! to you all however you choose to celebrate or not celebrate. May 2019 bring what you need it to bring you. I will be taking a short break this week and be back in January of 2019.

A Message for Families in Crisis

There was a murder in my hometown this past Monday. You can read about it here. A 12-year-old boy murdered his twin sister and stabbed his mother in a domestic incident. I cannot tell you if this boy has a mental health diagnosis. But I can tell you that there were most likely signs leading up to the incident that trouble was brewing in the mind of this boy. Families should know that in Connecticut by dialing 211 they can reach resources to prevent a crisis. Should a crisis like this happen, 211 can help them find counseling and other resources they need.

If the boy has a mental health diagnosis, he needs help over jail or juvenile detention. Acts like these don’t come on suddenly; they escalate over time, often the symptoms or warning signs don’t appear all at once or are hard to see as they are masked by typical tweenager behavior. Here are a list of links for families in crisis you might want to become familar with before it’s too late. These links will give you information and resources for handling a crisis before it escalates into tragedy.


healthfinder.gov         Search for crisis intervention

empowering parents.com     Free Parenting Resources



Is it Bipolar Or Is it Me? A Guest Blog from Carrie Cantwell


photos courtesy of Carrie Cantwell

Be yourself. That’s a pretty universal piece of advice. Whether you’re applying for a job or going on a first date, it’s something we’ve all heard at one time or another. When everyone can see the real you, the relationships you build are authentic. But because I have bipolar disorder, I have a hard time even knowing who “the real me” is. Am I the bubbly, energetic go-getter who’s the life of the party? Am I the sensitive, introspective person who sometimes cries too often? Or are those behaviors expressions of my bipolar disorder?

Bipolar is a mood disorder. People struggling with this illness may just seem like they’re in a good or bad mood. They may look like naturally sociable, sad or angry people to everyone around them. However, in people with bipolar, what appears to be their disposition is often a brain chemical imbalance lurking underneath. Because the symptoms can masquerade as personality traits, it’s often difficult for people with the illness, and their loved ones, to discern whether someone has bipolar disorder or if they’re just naturally “that way.”

I’ve always been outgoing. My first word wasn’t “Mama” or “Dada”—it was “hi.” As soon as I could talk, I said “hi” to everyone I met. I was full of hyperactive energy and had a hard time sitting still. My elementary school teachers often sent me to the principal’s office because I talked too much in class. In high school, I filled my schedule with extra-curricular activities and social events, with barely enough time to do homework. College was no different. Not only did I have a full load of classes and a job, I also threw myself into activist groups and went to parties every night of the week. I was constantly making new friends, and I slept with too many people to count. Always on-the-go, I’d jump from one activity to the next with no downtime to reflect or relax.

All this may sound like I’m just a naturally gregarious person. But it also describes someone who’s hypomanic. In my twenties, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Was this bipolar or was this me? For those of us with this illness, second-guessing your true nature comes with the territory. I don’t always recognize the person staring back at me when I look in the mirror. When I took the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator at twenty-three, I came out on the extreme end of ENFJ, with an emphasis on the big “E” for extrovert. Does the big “E” mean I’m really an extrovert, or is that hypomania? Hypomania can be subtle. It can look like I’m just someone with a lot of friends who loves to participate in social activities. But that’s also what an extrovert is. Sometimes it’s difficult to detangle my true self from all these labels.

I love the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The message I took away from the movie is this: if you’re given the chance to remove painful memories, it’s better to keep them, because they determine your identity. Someone once asked me if I could get rid of my bipolar disorder, would I? My answer was no. No matter how I’ve gotten to where I am now—whether it’s a result of my bipolar or my personality—it’s my past that’s made me who I’m proud to be today. Does that mean I ignore my illness and don’t take care of myself? Of course not. I recognize that I have a lifelong mood disorder that needs ongoing care, just like diabetes or high blood pressure. I take my medication; visit the doctor regularly; get enough sleep, food and exercise; and try to keep things in perspective. I surround myself with a strong support network of friends and family who can tell me if they see me start to go off the rails. I try not to focus on labels or worry about which aspects of my behavior are my personality or the illness. Whatever the parts are that make up the whole of who I am, I like myself, and that’s what really matters.

Carrie Cantwell blogs about bipolar at darknessandlight.org. She is currently writing and editing a memoir titled Daddy Issues: A Memoir.

If you have a story and want to guest blog for me, please contact me through my contact page on this blog.

Profile in Brave: Carrie Cantwell, writer, designer for the movies, and bipolar 2


Photos courtesy of Carrie Cantwell

The four year anniversary of Carrie Cantwell’s dad’s suicide hit her hard. That day, she fell into a deep depression, went on disability from work and stayed with her mother. Her mom—a psychotherapist—took her to a psychiatrist because of her genetic predisposition to bipolar disorder, because her dad had bipolar disorder too. At age 28, Cantwell was diagnosed with bipolar II. Cantwell had always been hypomanic, but she never considered it a problem because she felt great. In college, she was quite hypersexual, sleeping with strange men and women she barely knew, all without thinking about the consequences. She also shoplifted once just for the high of it.

Now, 44, Cantwell, of Atlanta, has a handle on her triggers and symptoms. She writes about bipolar disorder in her blog darknessandlight.org. She finds blogs written by others with bipolar inspiring such as the ones on BPhope.com. She has gone to Depression Bipolar Support Alliance DBSA meetings, and has written for their newsletter.

“When I’m manic, I sleep four hours a night and spend a lot of money, even though most of the time I am frugal.” Cantwell said she could spend 6 hours at a thrift store and walk out of the store with $100 worth of stuff when she is manic. Online shopping has been a problem for her too.

During her depressive episodes, anxiety is paralyzing. “If I see a glass of water on the table, I am afraid of spilling it and if it spills it will be the end of the world.” She also cries more and feels lethargic. “Moving feels like walking in molasses,” she said.
In 2012, a suicide attempt culminating from a mixed episode almost ended her life. A mixed episode is mania combined with the hopelessness of depression. They can be particularly dangerous because the charge and racing thoughts of the mania can give one the energy to try suicidal behavior.

“My diagnosis helped me understand my dad. My mother told me when I was eight that my dad had manic depression. I understood that as he would spend lots of money and blow up at me for no reason. One day he was nice and the next day he was scaring me. It wasn’t until my first depressive episode in 2002 that I was diagnosed, because I was triggered by his death.”

Growing up an only child, she realized that this is a mental illness which affects personality and behavior. Her diagnosis and suicide attempt—in the end—helped her understand both her and her dad.

Cantwell is currently editing her memoir Daddy Issues: A Memoir about growing up with a bipolar father and receiving the diagnosis herself, which she’ll shop to agents in January. “This book is me coming out of the bipolar closet,” she said.

Her mother and her boyfriend are her biggest supporters in life. She’s known her boyfriend for 22 years and told him on the first date about her bipolar diagnosis, but he already knew and was cool.
“Sometimes he says calm down, turbo, in a gentle way, when I’m getting worked up,” said Cantwell.
Her best friend of roughly 30 years, who has anxiety issues, is supportive as well.

Cantwell loves knitting and crocheting mice for the kitties at the Humane Society, she’s vegan and loves vegan cooking, she does yoga, plays trivia at bars, and loves watching movies. Her favorite movie is Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

“My dad showed me that movie when I was a kid, and that movie inspired me to get into the film business,” she said.

For work, Cantwell uses her graphic design skills to create fake worlds for movie sets. She holds a BFA in Graphic Design, a BA in English, and a Master’s Certification in Project Management.

Cantwell works remotely, which she says is a healthy balance of not always being on a movie set. She makes worlds look real by designing fake products and signs.
She’s only told a select few colleagues about her bipolar diagnosis, but she doesn’t plan to hide it after her memoir is published. Her blog is also in her real name.

After all she knows that she is reliable. “I am reliable and I never quit a job.”
She is always hustling for work in this business, and she likes it. It keeps her on her toes.

“Working in my career for 13 years, I’m established enough now to pick each job I take,” she said.

Her bipolar gets triggered by the traffic in Atlanta. To avoid road rage she tries to avoid driving at high traffic times like rush hour. Daylight savings time can also be a trigger so she has to make sure sleep is priority. She has an eye mask and a white noise machine, and a portable white noise machine for when she travels.

You can read her blog Darkness and Light and find out more about Carrie Cantwell by going to http://darknessandlight.org.

Autism School Gives Kids Fresh Start; Now They NeedYour Help


Nina has autism, sits in a wheelchair, likes to ask a lot of questions, and likes metal bands. When I entered the Fresh Start School, she was with her nurse at a table drawing. She was curious about who I was and baraged me with questions, sometimes asking the same one twice.

The Focus Center for Autism’s Fresh Start School for students age 11 and up is located in a small house with a loft for their administrative offices in Canton, CT.

“A lot of our students were bullied and never had friends. They come with trauma and it takes time to undo it,” said Lauren Gardner, their Autism Service Coordinator.

The Fresh Start School is a safe place for children and teens on the autism spectrum, with school phobias and anxieties to learn to overcome these challenges.

“The school is essentially a social incubator, a safe space for them to learn to trust us. We meet them where there at,” said Gardner. At Fresh Start, students are introduced to milieu therapy where the children’s social environment is controlled in order to prevent self-depstructive behavior.

Students like Dillion, who was out sick when I visited, had recently gone on live television channel Fox 61 with Donna Swanson, the executive director of the Focus Center to spread awareness for the school and for their Stand By Me fundraising campaign to raise $100,000 by December 31. The Focus Center has been in existence since 2001; the school has been around for 16 years but recently became recognized as a state approved special education school in 2016. The Center and the School are a non-profit. Most of their funding is through donations, and municipalities pay the School per child that needs services. The campaign got its name from the song that students graduating sang “Stand By Me.” There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

“This school understands me,” said Dillion. “When I first came to the school, I was the equivalent of trying to build the Empire States Building out of toothpicks.” Now, he’s speaking on live television.

With a motto on their web site and literature worded as “because the creatively wired and socially challenged should not have to go it alone,” the school is a welcome refuge for these types of students helping them make progress on their issues so they can get a job, attend college and lead productive lives. When students with autism or other challenges reach age 21 and beyond, there are limited resources to help them adapt to the world around them which can move at a frentic pace and serve to over-stimulate them.

The school’s mission is for students to achieve their fullest potential whatever that is through giving them coping skills, social skills, and life skills. Their goal is to reintegrate the children back into the public school system. Starting at 8:15 am and going through to 2:45 pm, the students have a full day of art, physical exercise, and science, math, English, and history. Students come from all over Connecticut so while everyone is waiting for children to arrive they socialize and have mindfulness meditation sessions. They also offer career transitioning for older students, as they have students ages 10-19. Classes are small with 3 to 6 students and are based on academic levels.

One of their successes is Alex, an 18-year-old, who just got a job at Give Coffeehouse in Canton. Alex does well in English, film and art but not math. He may have the opportunity to learn about television equipment through an internship with Nutmeg Community television. Nutmeg television is one of the many local businesses who have partnered with the School. Just yesterday, the School had a meeting with Nutmeg about creating a t.v. show. Plans are in the works.

Alex participated in the Spectrum UnPlugged panels created to raise awareness about what goes on in the School and with the students. The panels talk to parents to teach them how to understand their children on the spectrum. The panels have parents, students, and alumni of the School on them. At first, public speaking was difficult and overwhelming for Alex but with people he knew from school present in the room he felt more comfortable.

In public school, Alex’s anxiety was misread as oppositional behavior. “He’s actually a sweet kid,” said Gardner. “A lot of people misread students as rude because they are unaware of autism.”

“Alex has grown from a shy, reserved kid into someone who mentors others new to School,” Gardner said. Gardner has a Bachelors in Social Work and has been at the School for nine years, the last three as a full-time employee. She began as a volunteer. She does everything from assisting in the classroom, fund development and marketing.
“When Dillion came to us, he wanted to be alone in a room with his laptop and piano keyboard,” said Meaghen Harris, an LCSW and Director of Educational Services at the School. “Our program is unique. We can be flexible.”

Dillion who came to the School with a high IQ but the emotional intelligence of a 3-year-old, progressed amazingly. He’s now in 11th grade and making television appearances with Focus Center’s executive director Donna Swanson.

“I can see him going on to college. He’s talented with computers and codes pieces of art on his calculator,” said Harris. “He has a lot of phobias and has come a long way with those as well.”

One of Dillion’s phobias is the foam on hot cocoa but he’s working through it and in a really good place.

“He’s started to befriend new students with the same struggles. He recognizes himself in them and goes out of his way to be kind,” said Harris.

The School has a student who speaks in television and movie scripts, especially Disney and a student who writes numbers over and over to calm down. He’s gone from 0 to 25,000. The School meets the students where they are and uses their special interests and talents to help them integrate into the world. “No one judges them here,” said Harris.

“With kids with autism, their progress is not linear. There maybe a lot of progress, then a backslide. You have to have patience,” said Gardner.

The School’s alumni are a close knit group. Some are even in a band together. One student even wrote and published a book about gaming.

The Stand By Me fundraiser is trying to reach over $100,000 by December 31 of this year. If you would like to contribute to the Stand By Me campaign, read more about the Center and School on their blog and web site, and check out their other social media, go to http://focuscenterforautism.org. You can also donate to the campaign by liking them on Facebook. Their Facebook address is http://www.facebook.com/FocusAutism/.
“With the capital means behind us, if we can do a little, imagine what we can do with a lot,” said Gardner.

According to Donna Swanson, executive director of the Focus Center for Autism, Nina, the girl written about at the beginning of this story, stood up and sang at the graduation ceremony and did a choreographed step. “There wasn’t a dry eye,” she said.

“We need the community to stand by us,” said Swanson. “We have gone so far with no state support just through donations and grants. That’s why this fundraising drive is so important.”

1 in 59 children have autism, four times more likely in boys. No two people with autism are alike, but they all have anxiety in common.