When I first entered the professional world working in the mental health system, I never shared my lived experience of recovering from schizophrenia.
This was for a few reasons. First, I had spent so much time investing in my own recovery that I wanted to focus on my career, which was deferred and put on hold by my diagnosis. I also knew there was still a stigma in the world, and I wanted to see how pervasive it was among practising clinicians. I hadn’t spent enough time working in the system yet to know how people felt about people with lived experience who were working as clinicians and also open about their diagnosis.
So, when I first began working for a non-profit organisation as a mental health clinician I never talked about my history or recovery. It was a difficult thing to hide. While mental illness is invisible, the people who carry their diagnosis aren’t – they are living breathing people. As a living breathing person carrying a diagnosis, working for a mental health agency in the same geographical area that I was treated for my mental health disorder, it became increasingly difficult to hide my history.
There came a point when I finally realised I couldn’t hide it anymore. That moment was when I truly got to know about peer support and supposedly not being embarrassed by my diagnosis. Learning about the history of the movement allowed me to begin thinking about my recovery as a source of pride and, in turn, using it to model recovery for my fellow peers in recovery. At that moment, I disclosed to my place of employment my diagnosis, history of mental health issues, and joined the peer network in the agency.
A few months into my career as a peer professional, the leadership in the peer network began to unravel. My peer supervisor was clearly becoming more and more unable to supervise, was increasingly agitated, and ultimately, was openly and visibly delusional. Her relapse opened my eyes to an entirely unspoken stigma that is still rampant in the mental health system today. For example, you would think someone at my mental health agency, or someone with a good clinical background, would have intervened and connected my supervisor to treatment – spoken openly to my supervisor about her shift in presentation, and how it might present a problem about her ability to carry out her job responsibilities and, nevertheless, signal her mental status was altered – or carry out her ultimate termination and exit from the agency with consideration, understanding, and most importantly without the very shame and stigma that we peers fought against in our work.
But none of this was the case. Rumours were spread about the peer supervisor who went ‘crazy’, behaved bizarrely, and in turn, this created problems and a bad name for the peer network. Not only did the situation created problems but, in fact, these problems were a direct result of her mental health diagnosis.
All of this was extremely disillusioning. I had just openly ‘came out’ as a peer and my supervisor, a so-called expert in recovery, fell victim to her own mental health disorder. Thinking back now, the peer network in the agency could have used this as a learning curve for us peers and made it clear that we are all vulnerable to mental health issues and that, while we are recovering, we always need to be mindful of what can possibly happen to each of us. The agency could have used this as an opportunity to develop a protocol on how to handle such a situation. What happened next was even more disillusioning.
A few months later, the very same situation happened again. The new peer supervisor, who replaced the supervisor who relapsed, experienced a relapse of her own. Nobody said anything. Any time one of us peers would ask for her we were told the same thing: ‘It’s been quiet, nobody has said or knows anything about what’s happening, or how she is…’ What’s even more ironic is that some of us knew this person on a personal basis and you would think we would have a vested interest in her health. What I later discovered is that very few people reached out to this person in crisis, and ultimately, after her job too was terminated, there were again no learning lessons. Instead, there was a whole lot of taboo, stigma, and shame surrounding her mysterious departure. No discussion at all around the bigger implications of these seemingly reoccurring and definitely understandable occurrences when you have a mental health disorder.
If my supervisor had been a clinician, instead of just a peer professional, the entire situation would have been handled very differently. Social workers and psychologists are all openly confronted about their mental health status, any changes in their presentation and mental health status, and in general terms, medical health and well-being.
What I recommend to all disillusioned peers and all people working in the mental health system with a diagnosis is: ‘don’t be afraid to speak up,’ and be bold and authentic about your history. You are feared by some. But the same thing that is feared by others, will inspire more and embolden others to be open and honest about themselves.
While all of us are victims of injustice, prejudice, and at risk of victimisation, until we really come out and fight against this type of culture, it will continue to be stigmatising, laden with shame, and the very stuff that makes us want to stop working on ourselves.
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.
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