Smith/My Turn: Saving a real life saver

Last modified: 12/9/2015 5:57:46 PM

You could see it in his eyes, hear it in his voice. When he said “the RLC saved my life — literally,” it was the truth. Others in the room nodded.

It was clear he wasn’t alone.

Perhaps, that is the major point of the Western Mass. Recovery Learning Community’s (RLC) Greenfield center, which offers a gathering point for a community of people who have experienced extreme emotional distress, trauma, psychiatric diagnoses, addiction and a variety of other challenges in life. The genuine human relationships formed through the RLC become a primary foundation of healing and recovery.

Alternatives to Suicide and other groups at the center provide a unique alternative to the “medical model” of treatment, which often relies on the long-term usage of psychiatric medications and programs and settings, which consciously or unconsciously can deprive individuals of their basic freedom of choice and self-respect.

“The reality is that if you tell many people in authority positions that you are suicidal, and especially if you say you have a plan, then you will be at best pressured and at worst forced to go to a hospital,” says Matthew Cohen, the center’s community coordinator.

Although short-term hospital stays and medications can be helpful at times, in numerous cases the threat, or the reality of, the system’s response has proven to be disastrous for those involved — and for society. Dominated by structures that accentuate unequal power rather than the mutuality of human relationships possible within a peer community, individuals are often further isolated. Some stop reaching out altogether. All too often, a revolving door of repeated crisis and “treatment” — or worse — is the result.

Every 13 minutes someone dies of suicide in the United States. An attempt is made every 30 seconds. Perhaps less dire but still alarming is the reality that a large percentage of individuals among the nation’s homeless and incarcerated are dealing with challenges that are generally categorized as “mental illness” and/or substance abuse.

A recent Washington Post article estimates that 10 times more people who are struggling with emotional distress or substance abuse are in prison rather than getting the support they need to heal. As well as being tragic, this proves extremely costly, both in terms of the human potential to lead meaningful lives — and in terms of tax dollars.

In reference to a slew of recent suicides and overdoses, Greenfield Town Councilor Penny Ricketts offered, “All you have to do is look at the police blotter to see how important it is have a place like the RLC available.”

Alternatives to Suicide is only one of the groups that provide an opportunity for community members to compare notes and offer support based on their “lived experience.” The Hearing Voices Group, Vet to Vet, and Men’s Wisdom Council meet weekly while classes that explore the healing aspects of creative expression are regularly offered. Each week, the center’s open hours also provide access to computers, resource information and informal peer support.

In addition, the center regularly offers a variety of alternative healing practices. The weekly schedule includes acupuncture, yoga, Reiki and mediation, all of which are increasingly recognized by the scientific and medical community for their value in physical and emotional health.

Reaching beyond its walls, the community also offers individual and system advocacy, and training and consultation — and is currently working on the development of an expanded outreach program to local homeless shelters and the Franklin County Jail. Ultimately, the RLC community to which this center is connected is a part of a world-wide human rights movement uniting with others across the globe to challenge discrimination, poverty, imbalances of power and the rejection of natural diversity.

In 2011, members of the RLC and RECOVER communities worked tirelessly to fix and paint the walls and lay new flooring, reclaiming a dilapidated vacant storefront to create a safe and welcoming space for the many hundreds who have passed through its doors to share in the experience of a healing community.

But now the RLC’s Greenfield Center is at risk.

Due to the current national political and economic climate, a crucial part of the RLC’s funding — a portion of Greenfield’s federal Community Development Block Grant funds — is no longer assured. A $20,000 shortfall threatens to close the center’s doors. Rather than being a vibrant and important part of the larger Greenfield community and offering supports that are not available elsewhere, 74 Federal St. could again become another vacant storefront.

It doesn’t have to be this way —and you can help make a difference.

On Monday, Nov. 16, the Recovery Learning Community will launch Community Gives Week with a kickoff celebration at its Greenfield center at 74 Federal St. A fun-filled, open house event from 2 to 7 p.m. featuring free food, live music, poetry and improv, and a raffle of art and prizes donated by Greenfield businesses will be followed by a live benefit concert in the adjoining RPX from 7 to 9 p.m.  

You are invited to join with others that day or to make a donation today at

A member of the Recovery Learning Community, Lance Smith facilitates Mindfulness Meditation Circles at the Greenfield Center and at Community Yoga and Wellness Center. He blogs weekly at and can be reached at


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