Connections Welcomes New Executive Director
We are thrilled to introduce our new Executive Director, Mike Skinner. He is a multifaceted individual, a professional musician and composer, whose own lived experience in the mental health system has led him to a life of advocacy and passionate activism for peer support for more than thirty years.
In the 1980s Mike was a working musician, married, with three children. He had a good life but something felt off. Following a friend’s suggestion, he began attending meetings of Adult Children of Alcoholics. “We didn’t call it peer support back then but that’s what it was. Later, when my PTSD and major depression hit and I was hospitalized (all of my hospitalizations were voluntary), my peer support was meeting fellow folks in those facilities - I still have connections to some of these folks.”
The first few years were a struggle. “The depression and PTSD made the music sound and feel like a bunch of noise. I couldn’t even drum. I had no sense of rhythm. My mental health providers told me in a low voice that I was mentally ill; I’d never play, never work again. That really fueled my anger. It’s a soul- crushing trauma to be told you would never have a life again - that this is as good as it gets. It was peers who told me to pick up a guitar. That was my path back to music.
In my life, I discovered the power of connection and healing, created community, created family that I know as peers. I am excited to be a part of growing that power at Connections and look forward to what we can learn from each other. “In the 1990s I started attending National Alliance on Mental Illness gatherings. Then I heard about peer support for mental health. There were several groups I joined. I was immersed in just trying to connect with other people and at first. I didn’t say a word, just listened. I realized healing didn’t have to be a cookie-cutter approach; my mantra was ‘Learn to listen, listen to learn’ - the folks I met were a fountain of knowledge - EMDR, ‘This book has helped me,’ healthy food. I was learning anything and everything I could to help me heal- I tried everything.
“Eventually, I started bringing my guitar, singing a little, sharing my story, but hearing others’ stories as well and realizing the trauma in people’s lives. I’ve always been outspoken, I always stood up for people being picked on. Visiting, I saw friends being mistreated at the state hospital. I spoke out and the head of psychiatric nurses contacted me and asked me to speak to staff. I started getting invitations to speak and began giving workshops. I started The Surviving Spirit newsletter. Eventually, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) hired me as a consultant. We’d go to Washington, and we sat around the table with psychiatrists, medical professionals asking us, “What do we need to do?” I don’t just go in to share my story. I go in to share all that I have heard, these collective stories that I’ve learned.
“Now I’m here at Connections and am going back to my old mantra: ‘Learn to listen and listen to learn’” What do we need to do? How do we make Connections better? How do we reach more people? There's a whole group of people who don’t have a clue that we exist. How do we offer support so folks aren’t just surviving, but thriving? How can we learn about how to help facilitate that?
“In my life, I discovered the power of connection and healing, created community, created family that I know as peers. I am excited to be a part of growing that power at Connections and look forward to what we can learn from each other.”