“Stigma, Meet Hope.” This is how Katherine Ponte begins her story. Katherine knows a thing or two about stigma. She has lived with bipolar I disorder with psychosis for twenty years. In manic episodes, she thought she was a prophet, bought a house sight unseen, and engaged in all kinds of reckless behavior. When depressed, she felt she was barely existing, hardly surviving, and wondered if ending her life was the only way to make the pain go away. Treated like a criminal by some. Shunned by many.
Katherine also knows about hope. Today she is living in recovery. She is a mental health advocate, writer, entrepreneur and lawyer. She is devoted to helping others who are living with bipolar disorder. Serious mental illness can threaten the very core of our being. Katherine’s ability to say, ‘I hear you,’ ‘I get it,’ ‘I believe in you,’ is a megadose of hope and healing for people struggling to secure their own recovery. I had the opportunity to talk with Katherine recently about her life and work.
Can you tell me about your recent book, ForLikeMinds: Mental Illness Recovery Insights? “I published ForLikeMinds in 2020. It’s essentially a compilation of my writings, many of which come from the monthly blog I write for NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). A lot of the book is based on lived experience. I want people who are in the throes of their illness to know that others have been there and that recovery is possible. The book incorporates research to help people better understand their illness and what helps in recovery. I try to give practical life advice and guidance to patients as well as supporters.”
Together with your husband, you also established a peer-support community by the same name. What inspired you to do so? “When I was unwell, I felt misunderstood and forgotten. I was a highly educated person. I was also unemployed and dependent. I was ashamed. My parents, husband and a few friends stood by me, but many others fell away. In my last hospital stay, I had an awakening when I met Chaya Weinstein, an occupational therapist at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Presbyterian Hospital in NYC. She showed me a video of Pat Deegan, a woman living in recovery from schizophrenia, and that sparked a flicker of hope in me. I realized that other people like me live with serious mental illness and find ways of effectively managing it.”
What are your hopes for this online community? “My husband and I set up ForLikeMinds to build an online community where people living with mental illnesses and their caregivers could find support, hope, and encouragement in their pursuit of wellness and recovery. We now have over 20,000 members and we also have a Facebook community of over 34,000 members. Our online ForLikeMinds community aims to: (1) Overcome isolation by connecting people with similar lived experiences and backgrounds; (2) Engage and empower individuals with mental illness and their caretakers through knowledge-sharing, providing peer and one-on-one support, and strengthening and building communities; and (3) Allow participants to control their experience by easily managing interactions on their terms and maintaining anonymity, privacy, and security at no cost.”
You have also started an outreach program called Psych Ward Greeting Cards. How did that get started, and how does it work? “I’ve had three hospitalizations during my lifetime, and each was a very lonely time during which I felt hopeless and discouraged. People don’t often visit patients living in a psych ward, and so it can be very isolating. ForLikeMinds connects a lot of people, but it became clear early on that we weren’t reaching people in hospitals. I began asking people if they would donate individual greeting cards with hopeful messages for me to give to inpatients. The response was immediate and positive. At this point, I have delivered over 1,500 cards to people during their psychiatric hospitalizations. Patients can pick the card that speaks to them. Even though they will never meet the card writer, patients feel less alone and touched that a complete stranger would send them a card filled with kindness and encouragement. I love that I can facilitate these acts of kindness and help other people help patients.”
What is most special for you about the Psych Ward Greeting Cards Program? “Sometimes, I receive cards back from patients, which can be very moving. One of the most meaningful moments for me was when patients at one hospital were writing cards for psych patients at a different hospital. I am also currently partnering with Fountain House’s Silver Center for elders age 55 and older living with serious mental illness. Greeting cards create this very personal human connection that lets patients know that they are not forgotten. Many of the cards donated come from former inpatients and people with mental illnesses living in recovery. They are uniquely positioned to inspire hope because they’ve had similar experiences. They can relate, and they offer living proof that recovery is possible. Other times, cards come from people whose lives have been impacted by loved ones diagnosed with serious mental illness.”
Katherine Ponte has fought hard for her recovery. She is both fierce and exceptionally kind in her commitment to sharing her story and supporting others as they chart their own journeys of recovery. She is sidelining stigma and putting hope and possibility front and center. Katherine was recently appointed to the Faculty at the Program for Recovery and Community Health in the Department of Psychiatry at Yale’s School of Medicine. It is only fitting given how much she has to teach all of us.