Gisela Sartori has worked most of her life to help people struggling with mental health learn to help themselves.
She has been an advocate for mental health issues in the Yukon for more than 20 years.
In 1991, she helped to open the Second Opinion Society, a community support group with a holistic approach.
Before that, she did similar work in Berlin.
“In my early 20s I went through lots of really big distress, where I didn’t get the validation and the listening ear. And that was the time when I actually decided to commit my life to create a place for people where they can get that.”
Next week Sartori will lead a five-day workshop in Whitehorse called Awakening the Heart.
Exploring topics like boundaries, communication and anger, the program is designed to help people get in touch with themselves, with other people and with the world around them.
“What happens early on when our needs aren’t met, we build defensive patterns to protect our heart from further hurt,” explained Sartori. “So when our needs for security and love and connection and attachment aren’t met, we start defending ourselves to be less vulnerable and to hurt less.
“At those times, those protections were really necessary, or we wouldn’t have developed them. But what happens is that most of us hold on, and we are very cut off from ourselves and other people.
‘This workshop is all about loosening those defences, and listening to our inside.’”
Sartori left the Second Opinion Society and the Yukon about seven years ago, but often visits.
The society secured funding to bring Sartori back for the workshops through the Community Development Fund and the Health Investment Fund.
In the early days, the society’s primary focus was on public advocacy and promoting patient rights, said Sartori.
“We wanted to change, you know, the world. And we wanted to bring these issues and the abuses that happened around psychiatry into the public view.”
One of Sartori’s primary concerns was forced treatment, where patients are not properly informed about their treatment or are not given the opportunity to consent.
The society was never against drugs or psychiatric treatment, she said.
But they wanted to give people more options for treatment, with an emphasis on building the tools to heal one’s self.
“It was very important for us that people have choices,” said Sartori, “And the way the whole psychiatry and mental-health system works in this country and all over the world is that people don’t actually have choices. It’s very dominated by the interests of the drug companies.”
The psychiatric system discourages people from taking control of their own lives, she said.
“They are told, ‘You have this diagnosis, you will be like this for the rest of your life, you have to take these drugs for the rest of your life, and in essence you can’t really change anything.’ And I think that’s a terrible message, a terrible message.”
Sartori says one of the great victories of the society’s work has been that its holistic approach, which was marginal 20 years ago, is now becoming more accepted by the mainstream.
“Some of the healing alternatives that we started at that time and implemented at Second Opinion, mental health services themselves are doing it now. There is more openness to alternative ways,” said Sartori.
The Second Opinion Society has been working to correct the misconception that they are anti-drugs and against psychiatric treatment, said Sartori.
Some of the current staff do not hold views as radically opposed to the system as her own, she added.
Never has the group tried to convince people to go off drugs, she said. It has only worked to give people options outside of, or in conjunction with, psychiatric care.
The patient right to refuse treatment is still a huge issue, said Sartori, and little has changed on that front in 20 years.
There is a role for people to be physically restrained, but that should be left to the criminal justice system, she said.
“There you get a sentence, and it’s limited. In psychiatry it’s not limited.”
And dealing with people in the middle of a mental health crisis in a respectful way can go a long way, said Sartori.
In all of her years working with people with mental health issues, she has never called the police or physically restrained someone, she said.
“We have had violent men at Second Opinion that got thrown out of many other services here, and we were always able to deal with it internally.
“I think it had a lot to do with the respect that we gave people, the non-intrusion – that we don’t move in on people when they are freaked out, or when they are really angry, but that we give people space.”
Today, the Second Opinion Society works largely as a drop-in centre and community support network. The advocacy and rights piece of the work has fallen largely by the wayside, said Sartori.
“I have a lot of sadness around that, that those things are not done to that extent, and barely at all.”
But the community support aspect is also incredibly valuable and needed, she said, and she is happy that the group has kept its doors open for so long.
“It’s very draining work, and we never had enough funding. So we were always so overextended.”
When Sartori left the Yukon she pursued further training, largely through The Haven, a centre for personal growth on Gabriola Island in B.C.
There, a course like the one Sartori is offering next week would cost more than $1,000 in tuition, plus food, accommodation and travel.
The Yukon workshop is free.
In addition to next week’s course, there will be four three-day workshops over the coming months targeting specific issues like communication and peer-support.
Also, there will be weekly follow-up meetings for workshop participants.
“After the workshop you feel wonderful,” said Sartori. “And then you close down again. Because what it really needs is a continued practice of these things, and continuous reminder to stay open. Because it’s vulnerable and scary to stay open.”
Participants can take part in as many or as few of the workshops and meetings as they like.
Registrations are still being accepted, and interested people should contact the Second Opinion Society at 667-2037 for more information.
Contact Jacqueline Ronson at