November 21, 2017
By Patrick Hendry, Vice President of Peer Advocacy, Supports, and Services at Mental Health America
Social Justice: Justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society
We don’t usually think of the availability of peer support as a social justice issue but society has a way of pushing those of us with mental health disorders to the fringes of our communities and for some of us the availability of peer support is the main ingredient that brings us out of seclusion and exclusion. Society has an obligation to provide full personhood to all of its citizens. That means that we should never treat people as “less than” or valueless. As it stands, according to the federal agency, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration over 43 million Americans have a serious psychiatric disorder. The vast majority of them experience discrimination and prejudice in the community, education, the workplace, and even among their families and friends.
Personally, I clearly remember the sheer aloneness I felt after my first major psychiatric break. Not just alone but rejected, a feeling of being pushed away from friends, colleagues, family, and the world. I hid in my house, I couldn’t face the rejection that came with my diagnosis.
I also remember sitting in the dining area of a crisis unit during one of my early hospitalizations and overhearing a man visiting a friend at another table. He was telling his friend about a place that was opening up in our small town. It was a place she could go to when she left the hospital to meet people and learn, a place where she wouldn’t be rejected. It was called a drop-in center, the Sara-Ann Center.
A month or so later after my release from the hospital and while I was hiding from a world I believed did not want me, I remembered that conversation. I was desperate for human contact with people who wouldn’t shun me, so I forced myself to call information and get the telephone number for the Center. It took me a few more days to gain the courage to call the number. When I did the phone was answered by a man with a friendly voice who gladly gave me the address and encouraged me to visit.
Once again it took me quite a while to get up the courage to go there. Finally, I pushed myself and I ventured out. At first look, the Sara Ann Center was just a storefront in a little strip mall, but when I went inside I found an inviting, home-like atmosphere with comfortable furniture, shelves of books, a large TV, and computers. Sitting right inside the door at a little desk was the man I remembered from the hospital, Jeff Ryan, and he welcomed me in with a big smile.
Jeff was the kind of person that you just wanted to talk to. He remembered me from the hospital and he made it a priority to let me know that I wasn’t alone and he too was a person with lived experience with a diagnosis. Jeff gave me a completely different message than the one I had received from my doctor and the hospital. They had told me “You have a major mental illness and you will have it for the rest of your life. You will have to take medication also for the rest of your life, and you will probably never work again or if you do it will have to be something simple and low stress”. They gave me a message of hopelessness and despair. Jeff’s message was “OK, you have a diagnosis but that isn’t who you are and your life is not over”. Jeff talked about recovery before we even used the word. He was about building on our strengths and growing. I was very lucky because I had found someone to stand by me as I struggled to face the world again. Jeff was an advocate, a navigator, and a peer who provided support and the benefit of his own experiences.
From very early on I recognized in Jeff just how important it is to have someone walk alongside you as you face the discrimination, and prejudice that we call stigma, and the injustice of social exclusion that we faced in the community. But, Jeff was just one man and I quickly learned that there were hundreds of others like us in our small town who also needed support in order to stand tall. I had found my place in the world of peer support and I have pursued it ever since.
Jeff and I had our ups and downs over the years. Two years after I first stepped into the Sara Ann Center Jeff and I started a non-profit peer-run organization called Mind Menders and we contracted with the State of Florida to run two drop-in centers (the Sara Ann Center in Naples and one in a migrant labor town, Immokalee) and peer training programs. Part of our primary mission was to connect individuals to the “real world” community. We had 24 people employed as peer supporters and welcomed the community at large into our facility by knocking out a wall that separated the Center from a second-hand store we ran. We frequently had people walk into the Center while they shopped and ask us about what we did there. We welcomed them with open arms, offered them a cup of coffee and explained our mission. We gained a lot of support that way and even occasionally a donor.
When we set up Mind Menders I was hired as the Executive Director and even though Jeff had the first choice and didn’t want the position it sometimes created a wedge between us, but I never lost my respect and gratitude for what he was. Recently I moved back to Naples, Florida after quite a few years away. Unfortunately, Jeff had passed away two weeks before I got back. He is a bit of a legend in Southwest Florida and to me, he represented what every person living with a diagnosis and experiencing social exclusion needs, a guide, a mentor, a supporter, and a friend.
Peer support helps restore dignity, and feelings of being respected. It helps us to stand up for ourselves and refuse to be marginalized by ignorance and prejudice. Walking alongside a person who has confronted some of the same challenges facing each of us gives us the courage and the knowledge to overcome our own feelings of being “less than” others and to regain our sense of citizenship and end the artificial segregation imposed on us when we fear going outside of the community of people with similar conditions. It is an essential part of reclaiming our civil rights and equality.
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