The Haven: Beginnings

Zen, Founder of The Haven Support

I was 30 years old and had just gotten married when I last tried to kill myself. I was actually in a psych ward on the upper west side of Manhattan and went into a bipolar mixed state due to natural chemicals, rapid cycling, and new medications. It made me suicidal. In a few minutes of fixated psychosis, I climbed up on to the top of a wardrobe in my bedroom, kneeled on the top, and dove off on to the top of my head. I had hoped that it would break my neck and kill me. My luck, it only did one of the two. I shattered my C5 vertebra in my neck and fractured my T6 in my back into three pieces. I needed surgery to repair my neck and they needed to use a mesh wiring to keep everything together. It was a long, gruesome recovery. But I lived and that’s what brings me here today.

Mental illness has dictated much of my life for the last 20 years. The first time I attempted suicide I was 13 and in a manic state brought on by Prozac. As a result I ended up in a teen psych unit for about a month. It was a horrific experience, one I often blame myself for because I didn’t choose the nicer hospital. But I was 14, what did I know? The psych unit was old and kind of rough around the edges, not slick and sterile like in an actual hospital. There were 2-4 girls to a room and half the beds were falling apart. The different buildings were separate so we walked with nurses between Lodge (my unit), the school building, and the dining hall. Eventually, due to excessive self-harm behaviors, I wasn’t allowed to leave Lodge. 

I was introduced to the quiet room, shatter-proof glass, velcro mittens to keep me from scratching myself, forced sedatives, and strait jackets. At one point it got so intense that I had four fully grown men holding me down on the floor, while one sat on top of me to keep me still, and was then injected with a sedative in my buttcheek. They tied me up in a strait jacket and put me in some sort of sling so they could carry me wrapped up to the van which would take me down the hill to the more intense quiet rooms. In my head it’s “the burrito.” Many more things happened in that month, but those are stories for another time.

  I lost friends because of what people said and believed about me. Which is fair, honestly. I was out of my mind and likely an unhealthy influence on those close to me. I was literally losing my mind in a mental hospital. It’s understandable. But part of that experience was my first run in with the stigma of mental illness. I hadn’t known that it was truly bad to be crazy. We had a psych hospital and rehab center in my town growing up. We always joked, don’t go nuts or the whitecoats would come take you away, but that was about as serious as it got. 

What happened, which I didn’t know at the time, was I had come face to face with the stigma of mental illness. Stigma rears its nasty head whenever there is something unknown, liminal, abnormal, not understood. People with mental illness suffer a tremendous amount of discrimination and a huge proportion of people suffering don’t even have access to mental healthcare to try and improve their situations. One contributing factor is simply that mental illness has been taboo to talk openly about and continues to be taboo in most places around the world. Men in particular find it hard to come forward and discuss their mental health. While we find it difficult to have conversations about mental health, people find themselves in hopeless situations and lose their battles with mental illness. 

Suicide statistics show that over the last 45 years suicides have gone up 60% worldwide. “The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that each year approximately one million people die from suicide, which represents a global mortality rate of 16 people per 100,000 or one death every 40 seconds. It is predicted that by 2020 the rate of death will increase to one every 20 seconds” (https://www.befrienders.org/suicide-statistics). These are terrifying statistics, made even more so by the incredible lack of mental healthcare in most parts of the world. Even in the developed countries access to mental healthcare is never simple. 

The American pay-to-win system leaves those living paycheck-to-paycheck with few options and high deductibles if they’re able to get an insurance plan at all. In the UK waiting to see a psychiatrist through the NHS could take up to two years, especially if you’re looking for a specialist. In Brazil if you go to an emergency department and proclaim that you’re going to kill yourself, they will call your doctor and send you home. In many other countries there is simply nowhere to go.

When I was younger I relied on chatrooms and forums, seeking solace in the experience of others, looking for validation for what was happening in my head. I discovered that I wasn’t alone. Last year I went looking for a mental health community that I could get involved in. I found a chatroom and moderated for a while. Mostly I offered support and advice to people who were having a rough day or in crisis of some sort. At some point a friend of mine left the chat and casually said, oh you might try making one yourself. 

Today I run a network of mental health peer support chat servers. We use an application called Discord https://discordapp.com/, that you can use on mobile, in browser, or in Discord’s desktop app. The Haven Support consists of three servers: Haven Lite, which is for people 13 and up who are living with mental illness; Haven Retreat, which is for people 13 and up who are looking for emotional support and a lively community; and The Haven, our main server that is 18 and up and you must be living with or believe you are living with mental illness. 

I began The Haven set on cultivating an environment where people could feel less alone, could get help when they otherwise couldn’t, or give back because helping others helped them too. The phrase that came to mind was, “Care when you need it, care for others when you can.” I’m bipolar so I’m used to a rollercoaster of capability. What I imagined for the community was something similar. When you’re down and you need a hand, someone is there to grab you. When you feel like supporting someone, you can reach out and see who reaches back. 

We are a tight community that wouldn’t survive without our peer support volunteers and the moderating team. The most important role in the server is Support. Having the Support role means that you receive notifications when someone is asking for help in one of our 1:1 support channels. Without the people who volunteer in the support channels, The Haven wouldn’t be anything like it is today. I am constantly amazed and forever grateful for the time and effort that people are willing to give each other. It is humbling. Our guides, support mods, and moderating team are also all volunteers who donate their time (and sometimes money) to keeping the peace, making sure all three servers remain safe spaces for people to hang out in. I always tell my team that we should strive to do what is best for the greatest amount of people.

The long-term goal for The Haven Support is to become a non-profit that raises money for people anywhere in the world who cannot access timely or effective mental healthcare. I hope that along this journey I am able to spread some awareness about the very real struggles that people with mental illness face day to day. It is still more acceptable for women to receive treatment for mental illness, but men are just as or more likely to be struggling and are more prone to committing violent suicide. Maybe in a few years it will feel more OK to say, “I lived,” after a suicide attempt. Hopefully within the next decade schools will begin to teach mental health as often as they teach physical health. Replace detention with meditation. Let kids play more and let teens sleep later. 

Mental illness is above all a physical illness: it is the connections between neurons, the electrical and chemical exchanges in the synapses. As far as science can tell, we do not exist outside of our bodies and our minds are theoretically contained in our brains. Since our brain is just an organ, all malfunctions thereof should be considered like those of any other organ. We do not judge people’s character because they have a broken leg, so nor should anyone judge a person for a depressive episode or a psychotic break. I have borderline personality disorder, but that just means my amygdala is bigger than yours. 

The Haven is the result of hard work and good luck. I found an amazing team to work with, lots of loving members who help each other when in need. We are constantly growing, and our newest connection with PsychCentral has really bolstered our position. I look forward to this new chapter in The Haven’s life.