10 Who Made a Difference: Advocate helps mentally ill tell their stories

Michele Herling, founder and executive director of Compassionate Touch Network and a 10 Who Made a Difference honoree, holds two paintings that were displayed during the 2016 Inside Out art exhibition. Clyde Mueller/The New Mexican

Michele Herling can still remember the screech.

She was 7 years old, playing down the street with a friend. Her younger brother, Bruce, 6, was playing stoop ball in their front yard. The ball got away from him and rolled in the street. When he went to retrieve it, a car struck and dragged him before coming to a halt.

“I remember the screech vividly,” Herling said. Bruce Herling suffered a massive concussion and a traumatic brain injury, and many years later was diagnosed with mental illness.

“The words ‘mental illness’ weren’t around then,” said Herling. Her brother didn’t get the help he needed. She was the only person her brother turned to, the only person to whom he gave access to his inner thoughts. “That informed the rest of my life,” she said.

It is for her work with the mentally ill in Santa Fe that Herling is among the 10 Who Made a Difference honorees in 2016.

“Michele doesn’t want any family member to have to go through what her family went through,” said Rosemary Zibart, one of Herling’s nominators.

Herling left home in 1965 to attend Boston University, and she earned a degree in English. She worked in Washington, D.C., before moving to a farm near Peñasco in 1975. Eventually, she moved to Santa Fe and enrolled in massage school. As a massage therapist, she specialized in helping people recovering from serious accidents or injury.

The concept for Herling’s nonprofit Compassionate Touch Network was born in 1995 when she traveled to Hungary and Bosnia-Herzegovina to work with traumatized youth; the 501(c)3 was formed in 2011. She returned 13 times, until 2002, the year her mother passed away, when she was needed back home to care for her brother.

By 2007, her younger sister, Gaile, and Bruce had relocated to New Mexico. That same year, Gaile Herling suggested she and Michele attend a class offered by the National Alliance on Mental Illnesses called Family-to-Family. There, Herling met Zibart, a writer and editor who had taken the course and was serving as assistant to the group leader.

“That’s when Minds Interrupted began,” Herling said, referring to a program where real people affected by mental illness tell their stories, in a theater rather than a lecture hall, to a paying audience.

Herling asked her NAMI group if they would be willing to participate. One woman said, “I feel like I’ve been waiting my whole life to tell my story.” That’s when she knew she was onto something.

The first presentation of Minds Interrupted: Stories of People Impacted by Mental Illness, sponsored by the Santa Fe NAMI affiliate, was held at the Santa Fe Armory for the Arts. “It seated 330 people — not only did we fill the theater, it was so quiet, you could hear a service dog breathing.”

In the past nine years, there have been 15 Minds Interrupted presentations in theaters throughout New Mexico and the country. When they presented the program at the Lensic Performing Arts Center, it sold out. In 2009, Herling took the program to Baltimore’s Center Stage, in her hometown, and it sold out, too.

Herling focuses on diversity, making sure the voices telling their stories are of different genders, cultures, illnesses and ages, because mental illness touches all of us. According to NAMI, approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. — 43.8 million — experiences mental illness in a given year. And approximately 1 in 25 adults experiences a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with his or her life. This includes anxiety disorders, depression, attention-deficit syndrome, autism, bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorders.

Herling “is relentless in her dedication to removing the stigma around mental illness,” wrote Zibart. Gaile Herling also nominated her for this award.

“Compassionate Touch Network is at the heart of all of it,” Michele Herling explained. There are three core programs: Minds Interrupted (the monologues); Breaking the Silence (the educational piece for high-schoolers); and Inside Out Arts, for those who prefer telling their stories through art. All focus on mental health literacy for youth, teens and adults. And all have the component of storytelling and touch.

“Not physical touch,” Herling clarified, as in her bodywork practice, “but the way we touch one another through our stories.”

Breaking the Silence has reached several thousand high school students in over a hundred classrooms throughout Santa Fe and Albuquerque. The program opens with a PowerPoint presentation showing the faces of 20 to 25 celebrities who have suffered from mental illness — Jim Carrey, Michael Phelps and Lady Gaga among them. It’s a “stigma-busting curriculum,” offering information to adolescents about mental illness, again through storytelling.

Inside Out: The Art of Mental Illness, gives writers and artists challenged with mental illness the opportunity to create, exhibit and sell their work. Participants receive 50 percent of the sale, and Compassionate Touch Network gets the other half to cover expenses.

Recently, Herling initiated Untold Mind, another art program adapted from PhotoVoice, designed to help empower people to use photography and narratives to affect public policy. Here, she gives highly sensitive artists living with mental illness an opportunity to show us, through their lenses — their eyes, hearts, hands — what living with mental illness is like. “I found PhotoVoice [on the internet] and a woman who was willing to give me $500 to buy a bunch of cameras,” she said.

Hanging on the wall at the 2016 Inside Out art exhibition at the James Kelly Contemporary Gallery were Bruce Herling’s two 12-by-12-inch tiles — one a beautiful photograph of Our Lady of Guadalupe taken in front of a church, the other with his words: “Living with brain injury and mental illness is a process. Much of the time it has been isolating. Myself was really insecure growing up. … But when I walk to the church and pray outside with Guadalupe, she gives me positive answers.”

“Many don’t understand mental illness,” said Michele Herling. “They believe people can just get over it. They don’t realize that mental illness requires medical support, just like diabetes, cancer or any other illness.”

“I think Michele is a rare gem walking through this life, and I feel very fortunate that I get to walk by her side,” said Gaile Herling. “She really does walk the talk. Anyone would want her as their advocate and friend. And sister.”

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