Why are peers expected to be volunteers?

This is one of the weirdest stigmas known to peerkind. It’s perplexing at best and audacious at best. Best to explain what I’m sharing with you. It’s not anything so significant as being relegated to “Crazy” and “Not Crazy” elevators (that was a thing at a provider service I once frequented – I kid you not – it was kind of my fault – we’ll be talking about this in our podcast) although it is significant because it suggests peers be unemployed and broke, and having money earned to spend on necessities like food, rent, mortgage, and full-on way-radical limited edition Pokémon cards are real challenges for many peers.


Why are peers expected to volunteer their personal time and life expertise?


While I’ve always been sensitive to this specific stigma, where folks from Disability Rights New Mexico, The Rock at Noonday, the Albuquerque Police Department, the University of New Mexico, and various miscellaneous assorted politicians turned private business owner turned politicians (hats off to my main man Ricky) sit at the same advisory table as I do yet are being paid to be there, it never really struck me as immensely ingrained in the behavioral health culture as it is until a peer openly criticized me for wanting to launch Stand Up To Stigma so all peers can also be paid professionals sitting at the same advisory table (hats off to my main man Robby). Said this peer:


“You’re just in this for the money. It’s an honor to be invited to the table. You’re doing this for the wrong reason.”


Bam. There it was, a peer stigmatizing another peer and a peer directly stigmatizing himself. Let’s break this down, misguided point by misguided point.


1.) You’re just in this for the money.

You betcha! The service Stand Up To Stigma provides the community has every last bit of worth as DSNM lawyer-person advocate, director of The Rock at Noonday, Albuquerque police officer, UNM provider, and politician person (I’m not certain what service many politicians provide . . . can you imagine what sort of projects could be funded if campaign funding was diverted to social services instead?).

Peers have value. Peers sharing their personal experiences and uncomfortable truths has great value. Value is not only in the vital service peers sharing of themselves provides the community, value is also monetary.

Everyone else at the table is being paid. Why not peers? After all, if it wasn’t for peers having mental health symptoms, nobody would be at that table discussing mental health needs at all.

I’m uncertain why peers being compensated for their worth to the community by drawing an income is a bad thing. Being able to generate an income from a unique skill set is the definition of employment. It’s also incredibly empowering supporting oneself. Guess what? A cornerstone purpose of Stand Up To Stigma is helping peers empower themselves. How is being paid for our expertise a bad thing?


2.) It’s an honor to be invited to the table.

Yeah. Stating it flatly, the dynamic suggested is backwards. To feel it is an honor – as peers – to be invited to a table where the issues, concerns, and needs of peers are being discussed, planned, and implemented is happening without direct peer advisement seems ludicrous. It’s like inviting an astronaut to sit in on lunar mission briefings. This does not happen. Astronauts are required at the briefing table at every step of the mission development and implementation. Personally, I’m not going to strap myself into the tip of a 50 story chemical cylinder bomb if I don’t know what’s going on. That’s what test monkeys are for. It treats peers like test monkeys. Don’t worry, we’ll keep you safe. Sure. Give me a banana and this month’s copy of “Just So We’re All on the Same Page, I’m Not an Astronaut Test Monkey.”

Peers are required at the table. They are not invited to the table. Why would there be peer discussions not involving peers?

Personally, I feel peers must be calling these meetings and inviting those who dedicate their lives to making our lives better (thank you, truly and honestly) to our table and discussing what is important to us, what we need for our successful recovery and wellness, and how we want it done. The honor is in peers bravely and openly sharing of themselves and the collaborations we require to ensure our successful recovery and wellness. “Being invited to the table” is such a miscalculation. Invitation? It’s our table!


3.) You’re doing this for the wrong reason.

I feel my expressions on the prior two misguided points touches on why the statement of “wrong reason” is so unintentionally ludicrous. What are the reasons I’m an active and dedicated peers advocate of the past eight years? There’s the being compensated for our value thing. There’s the helping peers empower themselves thing. There’s the making sure our voice is primary and our voice is heard thing. There’s the keeping both peers and the community informed of what’s important to peers thing. There’s the making sure our needs and the policies and projects implemented address and fulfill these needs thing. There’s the importance of peer education programs to be developed, managed, and engaged by peers thing (there are “peer education” programs where peers are invited to participate by Muggles). These hardly seem like “wrong reasons.” All said, do you know why I’m an active and dedicated peer advocate?

Because I care deeply about people.

Stand Up To Stigma is just as dedicated to ensuring peers earn monetary compensation when sitting at the table. Our mission and plan details just how. We don’t expect peers we train to be volunteers forever – we ask only for their support as we initiate the go code. And yes, Sarah, Ryan, and I are making Stand Up To Stigma our livelihoods.

We offer SUTS education programs free to the community; this means we ask your kind financial support in our fundraising efforts to make our dream of peer empowerment and community understanding a reality.

Go ahead. Tell me anything I’ve just shared is the “wrong reason” to go to the moon. Hold up. I’m stuck on the moon thing. Guess what? I always wanted to be an astronaut. A geologist astronaut. The moon is too close. God willing, I’ll get to go much farther than that. There are those who are passionate about reaching out to touch the stars. Then there are those who insist on touching the stars.

Peers are the stars.

And one way to touch the stars is to change perceptions on peers being considered first as volunteers and paid professionals second. As a community, we can change this stigmatizing perception. And Stand Up To Stigma is dedicated and prepared to do our part as peer community leaders. So maybe I’m getting to be an astronaut after all. All I needed to do was care about people. One small step for peers. One giant leap for peerkind.

– Steve Bringe

Becky Rutherford and Steve Bringe with Dr. Harrison Schmitt
Apollo 17 Geologist Astronaut and personal hero.

A very funny meme from AutisticNotWeird.com

A peer presenter with Stand Up To Stigma passed along a meme for posting to our site. Rather than just post the meme, it’s better to write out the dialog, which comes courtesy of Autistic Not Weird.


Dude #1: “I’m autistic, which means everyone around me has a disorder that makes them say things they don’t mean, not care about structure, fail to hyperfocus on singular important topics, have unreliable memories, drop weird hints and creepily stare into my eyeballs.”

Dude #2: “So why do people say YOU’RE the weird one?”

Dude #1: “Because there’s more of them than me.”


Classic.

“The difference between you and them is you respect the law.”

When I first started having troubles with bipolar and was frequenting the hospital with some regularity, my parents bought a house in Albuquerque so they had someplace to live if I needed them to help me for an extended length of time. My parents are my heroes.

I check on my Dad’s house a couple times each week. Mostly, it’s to make sure the weeds are murdered – I like vegecide as much as arborcide – as well as making sure the roof isn’t leaking. Yes, in Albuquerque, we get stuff falling from the skies that damages roofs. Usually it’s frozen water. Frozen water falling from the skies. This global warming thing . . . somebody got it wrong. Somebody got it very, very wrong.

Where was I? Right, I know. Once, on checking upon my Dad’s house, I found the front door had been kicked in. The intruder tried to bolt with the TV in the living room (the only TV in the house) but my Dad’s got it wedged into this walled shelf above the fireplace, so how I found it was slightly askew. I’m telling you where to find the TV, that there is only one, and you’ll never get it if you break in to my Dad’s place. So there.

I did a quick assessment of the damage and because it seemed significant enough structurally I made a call to the police, so I could file a report in case Dad needed one. Interested neighbors are universally famous for congregating at times like this. Perhaps it’s with the hopes of potato salad like on the July 4th block party, perhaps it’s with the hopes that their home doesn’t also fall prey to a frustrated bandit. Did I mention he didn’t get the TV? Classic.

It turns out that one of Dad’s neighbors is a retired Albuquerque Police Department lieutenant. He shared that there were contractors working on the house next door and this meant there were also subcontractors. That my Dad’s place was vacant – there’s really only the TV to steal, by the by, and you can’t get it out – did not pass unnoticed, and the Lt. also shared that usually with this type of break-in the perp is a subcontractor. Contractors, do background checks on your subcontractors, please. I guess. I’m itching to turn this tale into a parable.

Oh, wait, I got it! Parable, start your engines! So I shared with the Lt. that I was active in training APD in understanding peers in crisis and ways that officers can help peers, and themselves, in deescalating a crisis call. This was not long after the James Boyd thing and APD was very sensitive to any discussion of mental health and law enforcement. We spoke for some time about what I was doing with APD, and the Lt. offered this.


“The difference between you and them is you respect the law.”


I couldn’t hold back laughing. Openly laughing. Not about a perceived shortcoming of the Lt. I wasn’t laughing at him. I was laughing at me and the stupid stuff I’ve done when in crisis. My arborcide story is legend and deserves its own article. For now, I’ll say I’ve done some incredibly weird stuff when in crisis, stories I enjoy sharing with APD in their training. It’s helpful to see me when I am well because the only time APD has seen me at my abode is when I’m not well. It stands to reason. We don’t call APD when we’re not in crisis. Unless we’re lonely. I guess. Hi, it’s Steve. How are you? Just calling to see how everyone’s doing. So, fighting a lot of crime today?

Off track again. My reply after the hearty laughter was very self-aware and self-assessing. With the Lt. I shared . . .


“Dude, you’ve never been to my house when I’m crisis. I really don’t have the understanding, awareness, or capacity to ‘respect the law’ when I’m at my worst.”


The Lt. looked somewhat perplexed. I expanded upon my statement. “Lt., you only see peers when they are at their worst. You don’t see those times when they’re not in crisis because there’s no need for your services when we’re doing well. Crisis situations are infrequent for many of us. When we first started talking today would you have pegged me for someone who had police response for psychosis? Probably not. We walk amongst, sir, we walk amongst unnoticed because we aren’t always sick. And that’s when you see us. When we’re sick.”

He took it in, chewed it about, and shook his head in understanding. No words were necessary. He got it. And that felt so freakin’ great to make that connection.

This is a story I’ve shared with APD during Crisis Intervention Training. And it’s a story I’ve used in helping to develop CIU training. If there’s a moral to the story, law enforcement needs to understand that we aren’t our symptoms and we aren’t always symptomatic. Many officers have approached me after trainings and when they recognize me in the street. I always ask if what I’ve shared with them has helped them in the field. Many say they’ve had more successful outcomes, many say they now feel safer in mental health crisis situations. The most warm-fuzzy satisfying feedback I’ve gotten is just this:


“Steve, you’ve helped put on a human face on things for me.”


Score. I don’t know if we’re allowed to hug a police officer on duty. It might be assault on an officer. These are uncertain times with the DOJ hanging about. What is certain is peers sharing their stories with officers is making things more successful and safer for peers and police.


This is the cornerstone of the SUTS education program

Peer & Police Safety


What a lovely parable. Brothers Grimm, you can just clean between my toes until they are clean to my satisfaction. I’ve totally smoked your ham on this one. Take your spankin’ and scoot on back to Saxony. Score.

Peers shouldn’t be forced to behave like a prey animal

I’ve had pet rabbits for a number of years. Barson, Frito, Bailey, Emo, Bennett, and Happy to date. All good bunnies, a lot smarter than I thought they’d be (I got my first rabbit in college and had no life experience with the critters), and mischievous as all get out, each and every one of them.

Let’s talk about Emo. She was a tiny rabbit, and she died of kidney failure. There were no signs of illness in her, although the vet said she had been sick for at least a month. As the vet explained it, prey animals instinctually “hide” their illness until they just can’t any longer. Why? Because in the wild, a prey animal that shows illness betrays itself as easy prey for lazy predators who pick off the young and the weak (an instinct of predatory animals, as it is).

Something about this vet’s explanation of why it seemed Emo got sick “overnight” got me to thinking about how many times I’ve been fired over the years. Think about this. I new I was starting to get symptoms. They were getting worse. However, I had a young son and wife to support, and if I took the time off necessary to treat the upwelling symptoms, then I would also be betraying myself as “sick” to my coworkers and boss, and that ran the great potential of being “let go” for some reason that had nothing to do with the actual illness per se, but definitely I would be “let go” based on stigmatization associated with mental illness. Don’t argue with me on this one. It’s true.

So what was my option? I hid the symptoms as best I could, all the way until I couldn’t any longer, and then I was in now in crisis with severe mental health symptoms necessitating inpatient treatment regularly.

Emo hid her illness by instinct, and had I known when her kidneys were first having troubles, there are medications that could have helped her live a longer life. Rabbit instinct is to hide it until it’s essentially too late to reverse the damage.

I would hide my illness similarly, because I didn’t want to lose my job, until it was too late to reverse the damage . . . and I lost the job anyway.

This is not an uncommon story amongst peers. And when it hit me that many current employment models are built on the foundation of staying well to accommodate the job (such as to be able to keep a productive 9 to 5 position), it also hit me that jobs should be available to peers to accommodate their symptoms.

As usual, let me give you an example. When I was chairing Local Collaborative 2 in Albuquerque, I hired a young man with a mental health diagnosis as my administrative assistant. He was to maintain my schedule, manage my communications, set up my meetings, etc. The thing is, one of his worst symptoms was a sleep hygiene nearly impossible to maintain. So, I hired him, and I told him, “You need to be at every meeting. Other than that, do the rest of the work when you’re awake.” Boom. I created a job for a peer that ACCOMMODATED HIS SYMPTOMS rather than forcing him to stay “well” in order to do the job. And get this. He took initiative at every turn. He made my life easy, although managing LC2 was incredibly taxing on me personally.

With programs like OPRE’s CPSW training and the jobs being made available to CPSWs, there are more and more job models that work on the premise of getting help for the peer long before crisis occurs. The recovery from crisis, in my experience, is so much harder than getting additional help when my symptoms become harder to manage. And, keeping me outpatient is much less traumatic . . . and ultimately less expensive for insurance companies, if you need a practical fiscal justification.

Still, the pervasive employment model of forcing a peer to stay “healthy” to keep their job is so similar to prey animals instinctually hiding their illness until it’s too late to help them . . . it’s almost instinctual for a peer to think in terms of “I have to hide the symptoms and force myself to e ‘normal’ so I won’t lose my job.”

Or lose custody of my son.

Or lose my girlfriend.

Or lose my family.

Or lose my et cetera.

The models are wrong. Accommodate the peer’s symptoms, don’t force the peer to hide being ill. It’s the humane thing to do, and all the cool kids are creating new job models like the singular one I did. You want to be one of the cool kids, right? Sure you do.

We’re people with skills, talents, and intelligences like everyone has to offer. Don’t force us to behave like a rabbit with malfunctioning kidneys. If that sounds ludicrous, it unfortunately isn’t. Be one of the cool kids.

By the by, we at Stand Up To Stigma are creating education programs to help employers develop peer-accommodating employment models. We’re part of the cool kids.

Reprinted with kind permission of Steve’s Thoughtcrimes.

Oddly stigmatizing compliments

When I first attended behavioral health meetings, there were two things that irritated me in conversations I had with industry employees and politicians. Want to know what irritated me? Consider being told (as a compliment):


You are so articulate for a consumer!

and

You are very intelligent for a consumer!

What’s the worry here? I was being paid compliments. I’m articulate. I’m intelligent. These are kind words, not at all disparaging . . . if not for this one qualifier:


For A Consumer


Putting aside that I’m not fond of the word “consumer” to describe peers – I was told this is because we consume mental health services – to be told that, amongst peers, I’m exceptional in being able to talk and think, well, this is insulting. To me, this implies that the “baseline” for peer eloquence and rationality is much lower than Muggles. It’s the concept that if you have mental health issues you are by default intellectually deficient. Thusly, for a peer, being able to talk and think is such an exception that I am exceptional. Bosh.

Please note, peers do not share these “compliments” with each other. I don’t go to an MHRAC meeting and say, “Wow, for a consumer you are much more adept with words and thoughts than I am. In fact, you are a giant amongst ants.” These “compliments” aren’t part of DBSA Albuquerque check ins. “I just want you to know, you put the rest of us to shame with things about stuff and stuff about things.”

I’m (of course) being facetious, and it’s always more effective when instead of levying snide quips I share how such events leave me feeling. So, here goes. How did it feel when I was told – with genuine warmth – that I was “articulate” and “intelligent”?


I felt lesser. I felt inferior. I felt subpar. I felt I had limited worth. I felt crappy.


This might seem contrary to intent, and that it’s “just me” and I was being “oversensitive.” There’s something you need to understand about behavioral health meetings. They are frequented by individuals who know each other on a first name basis, and they know where everyone works and their role in the community, and they are well-versed in the volumes upon volumes of behavioral health acronyms. It is not a peer-friendly environment and for me I’d walk in with a sense of intimidation and uncertainty. I barely spoke because I knew absolutely nothing about the behavioral health field beyond my personal experience with detrimental mental health symptoms. After years of systematic, purposeful abuse by my ex-wife (another story) I had lost view on the confident, informed man I once knew years ago. I felt alone, separated, and unworthy.

Summed up, I walked in already feeling scared and out of place. So, to be told that I was somehow an anomaly amongst peers, well, now I felt out of place at these meetings AND I felt out of place at DBSA Albuquerque peer support groups. The first time I attended a DBSA Albuquerque support group – October 14, 2010 – I FINALLY felt like I was with other people who understood me and I understood them. Did I stand out? Did I seem like I didn’t belong? Did my newfound peers feel I didn’t have anything in common with them? Crud. I just found a place where I felt accepted for who I am. Now I feel I’m don’t, and all as a result of being “complimented.”

After many years of attending behavioral health meetings, it felt to me that many in the behavioral health industry simply don’t understand the peer experience. Sure, I can paint art with words and I am academically talented. So why should it matter if I’m a peer? I went over a decade without a diagnosis. Never did anyone feel necessary to tell me I’m articulate and/or intelligent for someone from the general population. And what does it say of my friends with mental health issues who are not as verbose or academically talented? Does this mean they are “typical” for a peer?

Can you see where the disconnect is? If not, then I will state it explicitly:


We shouldn’t be underestimated because we have mental health issues.


Let me finish off with a few rhetorical questions to illustrate why such “compliments” are the epitome of stigmatization, however well-meaning and friendly.

  • Is it okay to say “You are so hard-working for a Mexican!”?
  • Is it okay to say “You are so moral for a gay man!”?
  • Is it okay to say “You are so mobile for a woman with MS!”?
  • Is it okay to say “You are so aware of your surroundings for a blind man!”?
  • Is it okay to say “You are so ethical for a lawyer working for disability rights!”?
  • Is it okay to say “You are so honest for a politician running for lieutenant governor!”?
  • Is it okay to say “You are so tall for a midget!”?

If all of these sound ludicrous and/or insensitive, then you have an informed grasp of how minimizing “complimenting” me as “articulate” and “intelligent” truly feels.

I close off with a horrible side-effect borne of what are effectively backhanded compliments (and I’ll give allowance for the backhanded component being unintentional). Coming from years of self-stigmatization and the PTSD I drag with me from my aborted marriage, the worst feeling that came from being tagged as “articulate” and “intelligent” was just this.


I already doubted myself. Now I doubted myself worse.


This final statement deserves its own exploration. Muggles, please understand. Peers are in every way the same as everyone else. And since I don’t like merely to point out issues, concerns, and needs, let me offer a request and solution:


Don’t treat us any differently than you would yourself.


That’s a standard anyone can appreciate with self-experiential empathy. And by the by, a less-attractive feature of my personality is I’m tenacious, stubborn, and competitive. I took reams of notes, googled tons of acronyms, researched individuals, and versed myself in every bill, program, and policy discussed at these meetings . . . which I then used to educate my fellow peers. This is the foundation of Stand Up To Stigma peer focus groups, which I conceitedly boast are entirely peer-developed, peer-managed, peer-run, and peer-driven. No other organization in New Mexico can boast this admirable endeavor.

– Steve Bringe

When to “out” your mental health diagnosis to a lover?

A topic amongst peers:

When, if ever, do I “out” myself to my girlfriend/boyfriend that I have bipolar and/or depression and/or anxiety and/or schizophrenia and/or PTSD and/or fondness for disco?

First off, I don’t like the words “out”, “outed”, or “outing” when speaking of mental health symptoms. The implication is there is an innate shame having mental health symptoms, the implication is symptoms must be hidden . . . to the extent of not being able to hide mental health symptoms any longer and thusly falling into full-on mental health crisis. Not totally rad, dude.

Having mental health symptoms; c’mon, it’s not like being Patient Zero for having Herpes Simplex 3988 because I like “dating” green monkeys. It’s just a bunch of symptoms I manage that consequently affect behavior. Heck, if that was something shameful, my ex-wife should feel googols of tons of shame every time her “blood sugar dropped’ (she was hungry is her explanation), because her behavior got all fussy and grumpy when her “blood sugar dropped.” I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt and say in blanket terms she was always fussy and grumpy regardless of blood sugar level. An absolute angel I wanted to strangle with her halo, the ex-wife was.

I’ll give my reply succinctly, just as soon as I get done with things you really want to reveal immediately to a new or established lover.

  1. You’re infected with Ebola
  2. You like to date nursing students.
  3. You like burying nursing students more than dating nursing students.
  4. Are you a nursing student?
  5. Have you considered going into nursing?

Okay, my answer. When to “out” yourself? Do me a solid and don’t say “out” yourself. Do me another favor. Answer the question for yourself based on what your heart tells you.

When? Whenever it feels right.

Look, regardless of when you tell someone of symptoms you may exhibit, either they’ll accept that it’s only a disease you have and it is not your identity, or they will schedule an operation to have their head surgically implanted in their rectum. And if they can’t accept that? Well, there are plenty of other people on the planet and chances are you’ll stumble across an understanding soul. And truly, if the person you’re with is saturated in stigma and can’t see beyond mental health symptoms, what are you going to do, spend the rest of your life trying to get them to understand? It’s their ignorance, not yours. You don’t have to accept their ignorance.

There’s nothing shameful about having mental health symptoms. It’s a lot of work managing these symptoms. And you are worthy of having someone in your life who accepts this and supports you regardless and unconditionally.

That’s what everyone wants, mental health symptoms or not. See? We’re not different in any w

Reprinted with kind permission of Steve’s Thoughtcrimes.

Bias, Prejudice, and Stigma

Stigma. Where does a stigma find its source, the headwaters of a deluge of misinformation and misconception. In point, how do we as a community develop stigmas?

A stigma is engineered as such:


  • An opinion without facts is a bias.
  • A bias affects decisions and this is prejudice.
  • Enough people believe this bias and prejudice and now it’s a stigma.

There is an inherent harm with stigma beyond just “hurt feelings.” For example, if a lover is imbued with bias, prejudice, and stigma, “outing” oneself can destroy that relationship . . . although I hold that if a lover isn’t accepting of a behavioral health condition, then they really don’t deserve you anyway.

Further, a stigma canb adversely affect an individual’s employability. Too many times I’ve heard at DBSA Albuquerque support groups, peer focus groups Stand Up To Stigma holds, and other collaborating peer groups of a peer losing their job for being symptomatic, such as being too tired and isolated to go to work (much less take a shower) or too agitated for fellow employee comfort (I was fired many times for this). I’d hope employers would step up and address this; it’s still a work in progress.

And how about family? In our collaboration training law enforcement, so often officers tell us when families call 911 for a peer in crisis, the attitude is “We’ve had enough. He/She is your responsibility now.” This brings up the reality that often law enforcement officers are a peer’s only advocate when in crisis, and this is deserving of its own article.

Another stigma is one held by law enforcement, that peers are always in crisis because that’s when they see us. Police only see us at our worst, not when we are living productive, happy lives. After three years of APD training, I can say the most satisfying product of our sharing our stories is hearing officers share, “You’ve put a human face on peers in crisis. I now know peers aren’t always ‘crazy’. Peers can be reasoned with.”

Exactly.

What is the solution? Education, heading it off at the pass, and facilitating understanding.

Here’s the contribution of Stand Up To Stigma in breaking down stigmas:

  • Education through peers sharing their personal life experiences.
  • Understanding of the peer experience, putting a “human face” on peers.
  • Changing people’s minds and attitudes by peers sharing facts rather than bias, prejudice, and stigma.

Stand Up To Stigma has an ever-growing team of peers ready to share their stories. These are brave individuals who are willing to make themselves vulnerable, open and honest, knowing that their bravery and fortitude will make the changes every person who faces stigmatization needs to live a happy, productive, and successful life. We welcome all opportunities for Stand Up To Stigma peers to share of themselves for the betterment of our communities.

Best of mental health to you,
Steve Bringe
CEO, Stand Up To Stigma, LLC