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Chelsea N. Di Polito, PharmD, BCPP
Assistant Director, Pharmacy Administration – Clinical Services
University of Maryland School of Pharmacy, Spring Grove Hospital Center
Baltimore, Maryland

As psychiatric pharmacists, we pride ourselves in the top-notch patient care that we provide, sometimes even serving as the patient’s main source of contact and primary prescriber. We see ourselves as empathetic and work tirelessly to break down stigma. Every day we go into work and provide compassion to the patients we treat. Sometimes though, we tell our colleagues, friends, and family stories. Stories from our patients that make us laugh or roll our eyes, or stories about our patients – the ones we don’t like because they have [insert mental illness], and we don’t enjoy working with them. Have we ever stopped to think that maybe the person we’re talking to also suffers from that or a similar mental illness? Now we’ve made them feel the need to isolate and hide that information out of fear of judgment. This year for the 2023 Annual Meeting, members of the Program Committee wanted to put on a session to make you reflect, make you feel, and make you reevaluate those stories you share and conversations you have, and maybe, just maybe, gain renewed, or even new perspectives.

Session Moderator

Kelly Gable, PharmD, BCPP
Professor and Director of Well-being and Resilience
SIUE School of Pharmacy
St. Louis, Missouri

The goal of Stories Among Us: Lived Experiences was to remind us that mental illness is common and many of our peers also struggle. This was to be a lesson in stigma and empathy told through stories and audience participation with didactic teaching throughout. In November, a call for stories went out on the listserv and 37 brave individuals submitted their own personal experiences with mental illness. In March, an anonymous survey went out asking eight simple, yet very powerful, questions about personal experiences with mental illness – an incredible 364 individuals responded. The sub-committee selected four of the 37 submissions to be told live, in front of their peers, and all survey responses were printed anonymously. All 37 submissions were printed on an 8’x20’ display board to highlight their courage with names listed (or not listed) exactly as the submission author preferred. AAPP’s very own Dr. Kelly Gable moderated the session beautifully, navigating difficult topics like stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination, as well as empathy and addressing self-stigma. After a brief introduction, Kelly instructed and guided the audience through a Stand for Your Peers exercise. Each audience member was given one of those printed surveys with the following questions:

  1. I live with or have lived with a mental health disorder (diagnosed or undiagnosed)
  2. I have personally experienced suicidality (thoughts, intention, attempt)
  3. I regularly take a psychotropic medication(s) or have taken them in the past
  4. I have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event that negatively impacted my life
  5. I have experienced or am currently experiencing physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse
  6. I have used substances to cope with emotions, grief, and/or trauma
  7. I have experienced stress in caring for a family member/friend who lives with a mental health disorder
  8. I have directly experienced stigma due to sharing my mental health disorder or have not told others about my mental health disorder for fear of stigma

Audience members were then instructed to stand for every box that was checked anonymously by a peer. Next were the four personal stories which included struggles with borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder – type 2, major depressive disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Through the audience participation and the stories presented by peers that we knew, but maybe didn’t truly know, emotions of audience members present and even those listening virtually were felt unanimously.

This session stood out from all others at the 2023 AAPP Annual Meeting, and attendees provided powerful feedback:

“One of the best sessions I have seen in last 10+ meetings.”

“My favorite session of AAPP 2023! It could not have been conducted and delivered more perfectly. Wonderful work by all.”

“LOVE this. The only session I have ever not had a momentary lack of attention in over 10 years of attending AAPP AM. I was in tears about 30 sec into the first personal story…So glad this session came to be. Consider continuing routinely, every few years or so.” 

Upon conclusion of this powerful session, a mindfulness exercise was available in one of the smaller conference rooms for in-person attendees that felt this would be helpful, especially if triggered by any of the stories and discussion of heavy topics, including suicide. After receiving the overwhelmingly positive feedback, this type of session may make a comeback in the future and hopefully this will inspire even more members to share their personal stories and help fight the good fight.

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