Thirty years ago, Phil Borges was an orthodontist. And if he had remained such, it’s doubtful he’d be speaking tonight at the Rosehill Estate Visiting Artist Lecture at the Lewis-Clark State College Center for Arts & History.
The answer was no. And that’s when he began his work telling human rights stories using photography. For more than 25 years, Borges has documented indigenous and tribal cultures around the world. His photographs have been exhibited internationally, his books have won awards, he has hosted television documentaries and founded an online classroom program that connects young people in different cultures through digital storytelling.
All this time, photography has been his medium, but storytelling is his focus.
“That’s the way us human beings have learned throughout the ages,” the Seattle-based Borges said in a phone interview. The use of storytelling as a tool for social change is the focus of his lecture tonight.
His latest project is a film, a documentary called “CrazyWise,” scheduled for release later this year. It’s about mental illness and a movement that’s just beginning to take place in Europe and the United States that explores treatments beyond simply taking medication.
The idea for the film came out of years of interaction in the indigenous and tribal cultures where he worked. As he talked with the community healers, or shamans, he noticed a common thread: Most of them had experienced a mental or emotional crisis in their youth, he said, an event that our culture would label as a psychotic break.
The response by those communities to such an event is quite different than that of young people in the U.S. who experience a similar mental health crisis. That contrast forms the basis of the film.
Most typically in the U.S., Borges said, someone who has a mental or psychotic episode gets a diagnosis based on behavior and is given medications, which often have unpleasant side effects. Besides the physical and psychological challenges, there are social and emotional ones too.
“They’re stigmatized severely,” Borges said. “There’s a lot of fear. They’re frightened, the family is frightened — they don’t know what to do.”
Those who are diagnosed are typically told they have a disease for which there is no cure, only management medications, he said.
“If you’re told by an expert that you can’t recover, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Borges said.
In contrast, people in indigenous and tribal cultures around the world who have this type of an episode are typically taken under the wing of an older tribal member, usually the shaman. Besides receiving hope and guidance from this mentor, they are given a valued community role.
“These cultures have a place for this person in society, who usually becomes a healer or visionary for the community,” Borges said. “If you can successfully go through this, you come out with more empathy and compassion. That’s why they make good healers.”
It’s an approach with measurable results. The World Health Organization did a study on schizophrenia recovery rates in 1969 and found that places like India and Colombia had twice as good of rates as the U.S., Borges said. The findings continued to hold true in subsequent studies in 1978 and 1998.
Borges is clear that this is not an anti-medication film. It just asks if our current methods of handling mental illness might be improved by taking these other factors — social, emotional and spiritual — into account.
“The bio-medical is one approach, but we have to consider how community supports these people,” Borges said.
The documentary is being submitted to a few film festivals and community screens before it is more widely released. More information about the film is at www.crazywisefilm.com.
IF YOU GO:
WHAT: “Storytelling for Social Change,” a lecture by Phil Borges
WHEN: 7 p.m. today
WHERE: LCSC Center for Arts & History, 415 Main St., Lewiston
NOTE: Borges’ work is on display at the Center for Arts & History through Oct. 29