‘It’s not about the diagnosis, it’s about the individual’: Group from Queens works to destigmatize mental illness

Photo credit: Zucker Hillside Hospital

A group of eastern Queens residents wants to illuminate their journeys with mental health.

On Thursday, Oct. 18, the residents participated in “The Spoken Word” at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, where each performed a series of poems, songs and short essays that portrayed various forms of mental illness and the possibility of recovery.

Participants included Richmond Hill resident Rich Alexandro, his mother Pat Alexandro from Bellrose and Brendan Foley and Michelle Benjamin from Bayside. The four have been diagnosed with major mental illnesses but are now “medically compliant and thriving” thanks to a regimen of medication and continued therapy.

“During their presentation, the poets recited, sang, rapped and spoke their feelings in an effort to tear down the common myths and cruel beliefs that continue to stigmatize the population of Americans living with behavioral health disorders,” according to a written statement from Northwell Health, the parent hospital of Zucker Hillside.

The hospital’s director of ambulatory psychiatric rehabilitation, Carmine DeSena, shared that they had been developing the show as a means of outreach and education. He shared that the performances were meant to educate people about mental health and show that there are opportunities to recover, work and go back to school.

“We wanted to put a face with the story and show members of the community that it’s not about the diagnosis, it’s about the individual and how the individual has a lot to offer,” DeSena said.

He added that Rich Alexandro served as the impetus for the program, having frequently participated in spoken word performances throughout his life. Alexandro said he had been performing spoken word since he was about 18, which was also the time that he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

He described his performance as “kind of like a rap” but without the production behind it and details his experience living with bipolar disorder. Over the past year and a half, Alexandro said that the group had performed several times for different audiences including hospital staff, inpatients and outpatients and general audiences.

“The best compliment I’ve ever gotten was from one of my coworkers,” Alexandro said. “She said it was the closest she ever came to being in the shoes of someone with a mental illness.”

A line from his spoken word piece is, “I’ma act normal, whatever that means/Playin’ fake scenes and routines cuz I inherited blue genes,” which gives a taste of the “dark” subject matter of his poetry. He shared that much of what he writes is about things that he wants to purge and without art, he may not be alive today.

His mother Pat Alexandro also shared her story of postpartum depression after giving birth to her fourth child. Though she had never performed publicly, Rich Alexandro said that his mother was always “comfortable being herself.” In her narrative piece, she writes, “So, please be patient with me now and take me as I am/and I, in turn, will take you as you are” to spread the message of treating people with dignity and respect. 

Similarly, Benjamin said that she had never performed publicly and was reluctant to participate at first, but ultimately, she was happy that she was afforded the opportunity. It took her a day to write the entire piece but shared that it took some time to find the right words to convey her experience.

“I wanted to have everyone gain insight on what my own personal experience was,” said Benjamin, who added that it was her intention for people to see what she experienced in her “state of psychosis.”

Benjamin’s piece highlights her lifelong journey with depression and in an excerpt, she writes, “At once two worlds collided and quickly, uninvited, came the truth and I moved out, removed doubt, and came back to the future. Grounded now and in laser focus/I discarded but regarded my state of psychosis.”

Like Rich Alexandro, Bayside resident Foley shared his journey with bipolar disorder which he was diagnosed with at 18. “I thought I was cursed, I always thought of the things I couldn’t do,” said Foley.

Foley said that writing his piece entitled “My Curse, My Blessing” changed his perspective and way of thinking. A line from his piece reads, “I am here to say that my illness has let me understand people in a different way. I am blessed, not cursed. And I am Brendan, not bipolar.”

As a result, he said that he sees things in a “more positive light” and is able to use his experiences and voice to help others diagnosed with mental illnesses. He realized that the things he thought he “didn’t have” are qualities he now possesses after participating in the Spoken Word experience, which allowed him to work through his inner struggles.

Currently, three of the performers are employees with Zucker Hillside Hospital; Rich Alexandro as a peer advocate and Benjamin and Foley as fully licensed Personalized Recovery Oriented Services (PROS) counselors.

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