A postcard showing a canopy bed:

An ex-user of mental health services shares his story

In an interview, Franz-Josef Wagner tells Elena Posth from Pfalzklinikum AdöR about his experiences as an ex-user of mental health services in the Rhineland-Palatinate region of Germany

Franz-Josef Wagner is the chairman of the state association of (ex-)users of mental health services in Rhineland-Palatinate (formerly LVPE, now NetzG), the regional association for self-help in mental health in Germany. From the very beginning he has been involved and in 1996, the year of its foundation, he was first vice chairman. Here, Editor at Pfalzklinikum, Elena Posth talks to him about his various tasks and the messages he wants to convey.

Mr Wagner, how did the foundation of the LVPE come about?

Franz-Josef Wagner: The state law concerning mentally ill persons introduced in 1995 formed the basis of LVPE’s foundation. In it, particularly, the co-operation of mentally ill persons and the precedence of self-help over public help were pointed out. In May 1996, three chapters were merged to form the state association of (ex-) users of mental health services in Rhineland-Palatinate. The first chairman in those days was Winfried Krolla. I took over his position in 1999.

You have built up a new network organisation. What did you plan exactly?

Franz-Josef Wagner: The Federal Network Self-Help Mental Health (NetzG) was founded in November 2016. Until recently, it has not been registered, there were some formal problems. In May 2017, we had our second general meeting. In future, we want to voice our opinions regarding amending laws, we want to have a say and represent our interests at the political level. So far, self-help groups have only offered their services. We want to change this. We want to monitor and control services by means of evaluations, for example, and to bring up a painful subject in the interests of all those concerned.

And what has changed in the state association?

Franz-Josef Wagner: Before the reorganisation, the complete work of the state association was split up between three persons. I, for myself, had more than 80 dates outside our office in Trier last year – without counting those in my surrounding area – I worked for more than 1,900 hours. To change this situation, we contacted a business consultant for help. She advised us free of charge. Together with us, she reflected on the questions of what structure and name we should have in future, especially since we had no organisational or content-related contacts to the federal association of (ex-)users of mental health services. The new orientation of the LVPE is inspired by NetzG, the federal network of self-help in mental health. The problem is that most of our members do not want to work politically or give their name in general. This clearly shows that the stigma around mental health is still a very present one.

What forms of participation do you ask for? Are there good or bad examples?

Franz-Josef Wagner: I think, the Pfalzklinikum’s initiative “The Palatinate makes itself/you strong – ways to resilience” is a very good example. It is a project with good publicity and participation. Looking at the development of this over last few years, I think that we are heading in the right direction. The World Congress of Psychiatry in October 2017 in Berlin mirrored a change in science: now an individual’s subjective experience is important for objective research.

This gives meaning to psychosis. Some of my essays describe four different stages of my life: the normal phase; resignation; convalescence and the recovery phase.

In the second phase, the stage of resignation, I simply stayed in bed for 22 to 23 hours. This phase lasted for four to five years. In my case, convalescence was triggered by my daughter. One day she sent me a postcard showing a canopy bed and straight away I knew that my children were informed. However, I wanted to be a good dad and not just stay in bed.

Therefore, I decided to go cooking. In the beginning, my most difficult decision was to select a pack of rice when shopping. I said to myself: “You do not go back, you make a decision” and I trained this regularly. It can be compared to school: When you are in first class, you cannot pass your A-levels immediately. You must practice. It is the same in life.

Since when has there been a cooperation with Pfalzklinikum and how do you evaluate it?

Franz-Josef Wagner: In my opinion, the cooperation with Pfalzklinikum is very good. Prior to CEO Paul Bomke, it was zero, the medical directors did not accept us. They were simply not prepared yet. But since 2012, a very close, human and honest cooperation and communication between us has developed. Now, we have many interesting common projects, for example, EX-IN, recovery and symposiums.

What are your messages in life?

Franz-Josef Wagner: I know that I have just one life and I want to enjoy it and live in a simple way. I am grateful for every day I get up and am still alive. Previously, I found myself in a giant tunnel without any light at the beginning or the end, in the void. Today I have overcome everything. I live with a feeling of pure happiness. For me, the inner drive, the intrinsic motivation plays an important part. At first, I did not have it. I find it important that the persons concerned get more guidance from professionals. On your own, it is very hard to find a sense of direction.

What are your objectives or dreams in self-help?

Franz-Josef Wagner: My dream is to carry out quality checks by means of evaluation and to ensure that many users and ex-users of mental health services find a job in the labour market. However, I do not want to award a TÜV stamp to organisations. Instead, I want to accept the existing system and do not want to make it exclusive.

What do you do when you have spare time?

Franz-Josef Wagner: I love hiking. For (ex)-users of mental health services, the communication with the external world is very important. For this reason, I am a member of the Trier chapter of the “Eifelverein” hiking club; I enjoy their inclusion of my deficiencies. There, I take over organisational tasks and promote interpersonal relationships. Hiking can strengthen and change one’s personality.

Another hobby is cooking. Every day I prepare my meals, once a week together with another (ex-)user of mental health services. We choose a three-course meal costing approx. €6 per day, buy the food, cook, eat and do the washing up. My favourite meal is spaghetti with German caviar. I created this appetising combination myself!

Elena Posth
Head of Corporate Communications
Pfalzklinikum AdöR

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