PEER STAFF IN MENTAL HEALTH

There is good and bad in everything and everyone. While many people who work for the public mental health system may be deluded into believing the bio-medical model and believe they are helping even when they lock people up and deprive them of their rights, this is certainly not true of all mental health workers. There are some good folks. The same holds true however of many consumers who work for the system. Many, without continual support, are susceptible to becoming co-opted. They become like many other mental health workers who believe that they have the right to interfere in our lives "for our own good."

I want to point out that just because something is "peer" doesn't necessarily mean it's good (or bad). The public mental health system has what I refer to as "systemic inertia." Inertia has to do with physics. It is a law which somewhat simply states that something which is in motion will not change it's course unless some outside force acts upon it. I worked for and with the system in a variety of capacities over a long career and I both made and observed many attempts to change the system for the better. I finally came to the conclusion that it will take a strong outside force to change the course of the system.

I don't say it is impossible to change the system from within. I remain the eternal optimist but, I've developed a healthy scepticism over the course of many years. However, many public mental health systems are like a wolf in sheeps clothing when it comes to how they treat "consumer/employees" and I feel that it's better for us if you know that under the sheeps clothing lurks a wolf.

There are many other dangers for those who have been psychiatrically labeled when they work with and within the system, i.e., co-optation, burn-out, being taken advantage of, etc. There are many pitfalls to consumers working with/within the system and forewarned is forarmed to deal with those potential pitfalls.

One big problem with consumers in the workforce is that once lifted from the quagmire of being helpless, hopeless and overly-dependent, many folks are susceptible to forgetting where they came from. I've seen this all too often where consumer workers feel that because they've somehow helped themselves that they are therefore "better" than those they help and can be very condescending about it.

Yes, there may be a career path in mental health work but consumer workers are usually underpaid and often treated as less than regular staff with little respect to match the low pay. Of course the system is willing to take advantage of this. Those who accept this situation, to some extent, make the situation worse for others who would like to achieve full pay, benefits and respect for the work they perform. The system not only takes advantage of us in this way but it's more than happy to burn us out with over work which will free up their "regular" staff for more important things like...ummm, locking us up and depriving us of our rights or treating us as children in day treatment or thousands of other little atrocities.

I speak from a position of knowledge. I've worked for the mental health system in a variety of capacities. Like I said in the beginning, there are some good and some bad and I felt it only fair to point out the other side of this.

Please fight, not just to join the workforce in mental health but also fight for equal pay for equal work and don't devalue the work of peer support. In addition, please fight so that our experience can be recognized as our credential in doing this work. Also please fight for ongoing support to peer workers so that they can be reminded of where they've come from and not forget and turn into the very thing we're trying to improve. No one wants a "junior" condescending, "for your own good", mental health worker even if they were formerly a "peer." Don't forget the meaning of the word peer!