Written by Brian McLaughlin, MH Consumer Advocate and Sprout Contributor
To whom it may concern: Nationally the public mental health delivery system has embraced the concept of employing peer specialists. Payers and makers of public policy have wakened to the value of such an investment. Therefore, more peers are being trained and introduced to the new recovery-oriented health care environment.
However, some issues are inadequately addressed in Peer Specialist training. Peers are in growing numbers caught off guard when they encounter stigma and discrimination from a most unlikely source, specifically, from other mental health professionals.
Some mental health professionals feel threatened by the introduction of peer specialists. They question how a peer can be a legitimate member of the recovery team without a formal university degree. Further, the sorted issue of coin has rapidly come to the forefront. Some traditional mental health professionals worry that a peer’s compensation may one day rival their own. The jealously regarding professional validity and compensation are not left unspoken. They are manifested in other more subtle ways too numerous to mention. Finally, traditional mental health professional harbor the most terrifying of concerns “Will I be replaced?”
Peers are often shocked to discover that far too often, stigma within the modern mental health delivery system is rampant. Some basically caring professionals can be heard making the most vial stigma-riddled statements. When challenged, they will often say they are simply venting or joking. However, I assert similar “therapeutic” venting and joking would not be tolerated if the target were any other segment of our society.
Almost 12 years ago, I was hired by my progressive county to serve as a mental health advocate to assist my peers by ensuring that their needs were met. Despite the fact that the system I found myself in was and is widely deemed as progressive, such stigma still exists. Peers will find that a progressive leadership and public policy does not always trickle down to ensuring a progressive or enlightened line staff.
Initially, I aggressively confronted professionals who I found offensive and stigma prone. This approach was met with resentment, anger, and, in general, failure to persuade.
Then I discovered that in order for professionals to hear me, I needed to be more subtle, gentle, even humorous, when attempting to address stigma. For example, in a meeting a masters level professional once remarked, “Well her apartment is clean…for a consumer.” To which I said, “I am a consumer and my house is spotless.” There was a deadly silence. The professional blushed with anger or perhaps embarrassment. I then followed quickly by saying, “Well maybe that is just because I am unnaturally close to my mother.” Everyone laughed including the offending professional. Because she was not threatened, she heard my message loud and clear, and reformed. I have used a mild example of stigma here so as not to overly offend or embarrass the reader.
I made another mistake when first I carried the title of “advocate.” I became, as the poet said, “an island onto myself.” Instead of becoming a member of the recovery team, I made myself an adversary ready to pounce on each and every issue. I found myself shunned and ineffective.
I quickly altered my mode of operation. I endeavored to create for myself a new image. I looked for ways to support the team. If I uncovered an issue that was problematic, I learned to address it to the team with several creative solutions in hand, and a willingness to pitch in; ready to do my share of the work, so that the attempt to reform would not fall on deaf ears and fail.
I also made it a point to let the professionals I worked with get to know me as a person. Similarly, I got to know them as people. I engaged them in small talk. Together we found common ground. This lead to frequent invitations to lunch, and all manners of enjoyable social gatherings. I went from being that crazed manic-depressive zealot to being Brian.
That being said, there does come times when an advocate or peer specialist must… as I like to say, “drop the bomb.” However, I have discovered even when things get heated, the heat is much better tolerated when you are solidly a member of a trusted team of healers.
Even after all this time, I still make mistakes. Like my professional co-workers, I am not perfect and on occasion mishandle things. On these occasions, a sincere apology, coupled with visible effort to reform, is strong medicine.
In closing, I hope what I have shared might be of help. As peers specialists, our assignments will be diverse. We must demonstrate our unique ability to assist our peers in attaining even greater levels of recovery, self-determination, and health. If not, we risk becoming a passing fad. As pioneers and founders of a new healing profession we must be veracious learners, keep the bits that are helpful, and disregard what is rubbish. In the end, one’s path as a peer specialist will be as unique as the path one took towards their personal recovery.
Respectfully submitted for your consideration,
Brian Patrick McLaughlin MS/CPS
MH Consumer Advocate
Erie County, PA.