written by ACNMHC-BestNow!’s Peer Support Specialist student and PEERS Intern Anna Lubarov, PSS, ITE

Consumer-run agencies play a very important role in the behavioral healthcare system.  It is not enough to have consumer-run programs within non-consumer-run organizations.  But why?

When I first joined Mental Health Consumer Movement, I thought, “Why bother?” non-consumer-run agencies seemed to be so much better.  Usually, they were located in better neighborhoods and the interiors looked prettier and much cleaner.  They seemed to be better run and organized, and consumers/peers who worked for such agencies seemed more disciplined.  So, again, why did we need these, often disheveled, difficult to deal with consumer-run agencies?

It took me quite a few years to understand why. I can only speak from experience and will describe what I saw at the MHCC (The Mental Health Consumer Concerns), when I volunteered and later worked there. First of all, the expression “don’t judge a book by its cover” came to mind.  This consumer-run organization had less funding, lower operating costs and, therefore, fewer administrative staff than its non-consumer-run counterparts.  In addition, MHCC was laser focused on serving the community, so less dollars were spent on “frills and thrills”.  Most of the funding went to providing so-called “direct services”. I remember how the Executive Director, Barbara Lyon, said to one of the county’s staff, “To you it’s $1000 in additional funding, to us it is 200 more lunches that we can serve to our Community Center members.”  She didn’t think in numbers, she thought “in human beings”.  There were no “us and them”.  We were both, the providers and recipients of our services, showing up to work day after day, proving that people with behavioral health challenges could be productive members of society, that “YES, WE CAN!” 

When I worked at MHCC, I was treated as EQUAL.  I was supported and trained. Of course, it was not a perfect place.  Sometimes, it wasn’t the cleanest.  Sometimes, my colleagues lost their temper, forgot to tell me that a meeting was cancelled or a task instruction wasn’t crystal clear. At times, I thought that they were unprofessional.  The thing was, I had nothing to compare it to.  The understanding came later, when I began working at another non-consumer-run organization. Everyone there always looked like they knew what they were doing and seemed always in-charge.  The problem was they treated me and other consumers as if we were invalids and, definitely, “less than them”.  In the end, I got “crushed” by trying to fit into such a program. Then, I finally saw that the name of the game there was to appear perfect on paper, “cover your behind”, and “be afraid, be very afraid” of making a mistake or, worse, losing your job. Helping those we were supposed to serve came second or never. That attitude nearly killed my spirit.

In conclusion, I would like to say that when I see some of our consumer-run organizations start acting in the similar heartless manner, it breaks my heart. I get that it is not easy. That the demands of the funding sources are too great at times, and so we slip into that horrible bureaucratic pattern.  It happens.  It happens even to the strong experienced leaders.  Everyone makes mistakes.  The important thing is NOT to hide from our blunders, or blame ourselves and others.  The right thing to do is to learn from our mistakes, apologize if we hurt someone in the process, and try to do better the next day. We have to stay true to our Peer Support Specialist VALUES.  Otherwise, we are no different than the worst parts of the system we are so desperately trying to change. I know we can do it. YES, WE CAN!