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A good friend of mine, a licensed social worker and peer advocate, said to me once last year: ‘Max, you certainly love writing about your lived experience, have you ever considered contacting City Voices?’ I had no idea what City Voices was when she first suggested I contact their newspaper. My friend is from a different generation. She came up through the ranks of the peer movement and was an advocate since the movement’s inception.
My story is a bit different in terms of advocacy. I may have a schizophrenia diagnosis, but I am a consumer of the A-typical generation of antipsychotics. Meaning, when people similar to myself became symptomatic, we were ‘lucky’ to have available the new generation of antipsychotics with less side effects and greater opportunities for adherence.
People from my generation don’t truly understand what people with diagnoses similar to the late Ken Steele, founder of City Voices, and other advocates years ago struggled with; 30 years or more ago this new class of medications was unavailable.
I googled City Voices to find a great website and began reading article after article from individuals similar to myself struggling with a mental health disorder. Looking the website up and down I found the editor-in-chief, Dan Frey’s contact information. Immediately, I emailed him, disclosing my mental health resume without fear that my story and lived experience would be ridiculed. A few hours later, my cell phone rang, and Dan and I began talking about our history and experience with the mental health system.
A few days later, Dan invited me to meet him face to face in NYC at a local eatery. When Dan arrived at the Au Bon Pain, he brought a print copy of City Voices’ latest issue, an agenda sheet for our meeting, and some flyers for local activities and meetings in NYC to advocate and speak up for changes within the mental health system.
Dan talked a lot about his long-standing relationship with City Voices newspaper and his mentor Ken Steele, who founded the paper 25 years ago. That was when I realised this paper was something very special. I didn’t know who Ken Steele was yet, but I was about to discover his greatness, and that Dan’s steadfast devotion to Steele’s vision and legacy must continue.
After a truly energising conversation with Dan, I found myself agreeing to take on multiple projects with the newspaper and to attend advocacy meetings in NYC. Dan has a gaze that pulls in his friends, colleagues, and new friends. During and after this initial meeting, I found myself ready to take anything on when it came to advocacy and strengthening my connection to writing about mental health. Dan’s friendliness, optimism, and positive nature wasn’t the only aspect of his character that made me feel secure when I was disclosing my most vulnerable history to him that day. Instead, it was Dan’s loyalty to his former mentor, Ken Steele, and his mission to carry the torch because he believed in City Voices’ potential to help his peers.
To believe in something, anything, these days, is a rarity. To be loyal is even more obscure, especially within a system that has so many moving parts that being loyal and sticking to the mission of an organisation or agency is like having a smart phone that doesn’t update.
Most people feel stuck without opportunities to move up and get a better job elsewhere in New York state’s mental health system. People generally follow the money and leave at the first sign of better pay or a loftier title. This is the ugly side of mental health and the job market in human services, which has no space for a heart like Dan’s; he is more interested in continuing the important work of his mentor than in taking a paycheck from government or non-profit entities to be co-opted and potentially compromise his vision for the paper.
After reading The Day the Voices Stopped, by Ken Steele, and understanding Ken’s long plight with schizophrenia and ultimately, a life of advocacy after recovery, it finally clicked. I no longer had to be the ‘island’ and could leave behind my one-man war against the mental health system. Ken died too young of a heart attack, and I believe, the long strain of illness on his body as well as the stress of maintaining his health and mobilising so many while managing his diagnosis. Between my mother, and friends constantly advising me to take better care of myself and my active and wilful decision to put aside my physical health to expedite my mental health recovery, when possible, I found an answer.
The answer was to join Dan Frey, and accept a position on their editorial board, with like-minded people interested in the same mission and vision I have for the future of mental health. Together, our health and wellness, mental and physical, will be bound up together, stronger, and hopefully, we will live to experience the changes Ken Steele imagined and worked toward. In a few months, I will have the profound experience of celebrating the 25th anniversary of City Voices. I am confident, if we all work together, and continue to make new allies, we will not just survive the next 25, but thrive to create real change in the system.
Image credit: Freepik
Maxwell Guttman teaches social work at Fordham University. He is also a mental health correspondent for Psychreg where he shares his insights on recovery and healing.