Peers in Action: Lisa Gjerde

This month, we were excited to interview Lisa Gjerde, who has served on the Carver County Mental Health Advisory Council for the past eight years.

Lisa, could you give us a little bit of background information about Local Advisory Councils and what they do?

While the State Mental Health Advisory Council in St. Paul meets monthly and reports directly to the governor, legislation also mandates that every county in Minnesota has a local mental health advisory council (LAC). Membership represents child and adult mental health concerns, and consists of a variety of people, including those who live, or have lived, with a mental illness; families of people with a lived experience of a mental illness; and mental health providers. LACs review and evaluate mental health needs and services in their communities and make appropriate recommendations to their county commissioners.

Could you tell us a little bit about yourself, and what led you to apply and become a member of the Carver County LAC?

It has been my privilege to serve on the Carver County LAC for the past eight years. To explain where I am today, let me say that knowing a situation through one’s life experiences helps a person better understand its intricacies. For example, a cancer patient will learn more about the disease and how to treat it, and sometimes becomes an advocate for other cancer patients. The same is true for mental health. When you are a person with a lived experience of mental illness, you have been “in the trenches,” and are better able to not only advocate for yourself on your recovery journey, but also to help others on their journey.

I live with both Major Depressive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Through my experiences with a variety of medications and therapies, hospitalizations and periods of crisis, I have learned that having a strong support network of practitioners, family, and friends is critical; yet, my own contributions toward my personal recovery are equally important. It is this experience with the mental health “system” that inspires me to learn more about it, to educate myself and others regarding what resources and services are available, what needs are being met and which remain unmet, etc., that eventually led me to my local advisory council on mental health.

How did you find out about your LAC and what was the process like to be selected as a member?

Originally, I was unaware that my LAC existed, until my therapist saw an LAC member recruitment ad in the local newspaper and thought I might be interested. Initially, I was more curious than anything, intrigued that elected officials would not only ask for, but place value on my personal experience in mental health. I completed an application and an informal interview with a county liaison, and the county commissioners appointed me to a three-year term. Eight years later, I continue to serve on the LAC, now completing my third and final three-year term (my county permits a maximum of nine years of service on an advisory board).

During my tenure, it’s been an honor to serve with people who have like-minded interests and are extremely passionate about them. The members, both past and present, are vibrant, intelligent, compassionate individuals who are totally committed to improving the status of mental health in Carver County. These individuals, more than anything else during my time on the LAC, have inspired me to continue with my service and work hard toward creating a more equitable and inclusive mental health system in my county.

So you’ve been a member of the Carver County LAC for eight years, and have served in official capacities as secretary, co-chair, and chair! Are there barriers that you’ve had to overcome in order to be an active member and leader?

Fortunately, I have not found that being a person with a lived experience of mental illness is a barrier: like any other group, you prove yourself over time via your commitment and work ethic, and members have voted for me based on merit and not my status as someone with “lived experience.” Yet by its nature, Major Depressive Disorder can present its own barriers in that it’s often difficult to find motivation and energy to complete tasks when one’s symptoms are high. Also, being a perfectionist means that I sometimes work harder than necessary and put in extra hours. Finally, the time commitment itself can be challenging, and even a barrier in its own right: recently, I took a three-month leave of absence to attend to family issues, not having time for both them and my service on the LAC, and the Council and the Commissioners were incredibly supportive in this regard.

What advice would you give to anyone interested in getting involved in their county’s LAC?

If you are truly passionate about mental health issues, have the requisite background or experience with it, and are willing to invest of your time – go for it! It’s critical to realize that being on an LAC is not about what you can get out of it, although you do get plenty, but rather what you can give to it. If you keep that in perspective, you will give and gain a lot during your tenure on an advisory council. Keep an open mind to hear about and learn new thoughts and opinions (not everyone on the council will agree with you or comes from a similar experience!), and practice patience.

A fellow member on my LAC once told the story of the starfish: A person threw beached starfish, one at a time, back into the ocean. A passerby asked him why he did that when he couldn’t possibly save all the beached starfish. Grabbing another one to throw into the ocean, the person replied, “It matters to this one!” (For more information, refer to ecologist and author Loren Eiseley.) That’s how working on an advisory council is – you may not be able to help everyone in your community who is affected by mental health issues, but what you do matters to those whom you positively impact!

In summary, during my time on the LAC I have learned about the legislative and societal pressures that impact mental health services, and I have learned more about myself and my capabilities, especially as I served in various offices. More importantly, I have learned not to let my illness define me – it is an invaluable part of who I am, but it is only that, “part” of me. Finally, I continue to learn that everyone has a story to tell in life, and that listening to those stories makes my life story richer and more complete.

Here’s how YOU can get involved in your county’s LAC:

Go to your county’s website, and look for the page that lists ‘Citizen Advisory Boards’ or ‘Advisory Boards’. These are usually listed under the ‘Government’ tab on the webpage.

Learn more:

Read more about LACs and what they do:

Read another story about peers participating in LACs here!

By: Lisa Gjerde