I've had enough time to recover from the Georgia Mental Health Consumer Network summer conference, so I thought I'd write something about it. I posted a video on the Faces of Recovery blog of some of the opening remarks by my friend and collegue, Sherry Jenkins-Tucker. I decided not to cross post the video because so many people are subscribed to both blogs and they would get duplicates in their email.
This was the third conference I'd attended, and it was by far the most powerful. Not because of any of the activities or workshops or keynotes, but because of the harsh realities I came to realize through the unfolding of the conference.
We are a divided system here in Georgia. We have the "medical model" folks and we have the "recovery model" folks, and both camps were strongly represented at the conference. I was dumbfounded at times because I am typically surrounded by empowered individuals who are in recovery, yet I came face to face with individuals who have no clue what recovery is. They talk about their medications and their doctors and their day programs. That's all well and good for them, but what about a life outside of the mental health system? What about friends and movies and sports and classes and jobs and all the other things that life has to offer? I would have loved to hear about the whole person rather than one diagnosed aspect. We are people first! But our humanity is stripped away from us if we totally buy into the medical model of treatment, which is so painfully prevelant.
I felt this sense of dark oppression among the participants in the conference. I heard staff members who'd brought consumers to the conference straight from the day programs, warn consumers not to stay in their hotel rooms and play hooky from the workshops. I heard one staff person tell their group that they were in school and needed to go to "class", referring to the workshops. In other words, this conference became an extension of their day treatment programs. I ran into one consumer in the elevator scared of missing an event that she was "supposed" to attend and scared of "getting in trouble."
This broke my heart.
After that encounter, I turned to find a room full of peers who were relaxing and playing cards and talking and just kicking back. This was the peer support room, one of the new additions to the conference this year. It was a welcomed success. I just wonder if some of the more oppressed consumers were even allowed to go into that room.
I walked into the auditorium to hear one of the state people talking about how they planned to spend the mental health budget. I saw the Power Point presentation plastered with the typical medical model crap, just like every other year. So I left and filmed the gorgeous sunset at the pier. Later, two consumers joined me and we had fun just getting to know each other. I couldn't help but think of all the consumers still in the auditorium, at that point, pouring their hearts out to the deaf ears of the governor's advisory council. I doubt this council ever had a meeting with the governor, and I doubt even more their power. All I know is that the consumers who spoke to them were sincere and authentic and believed their voices were being heard.
The next day, the Network presented awards to various individuals and organizations who deserved recognition for the work they'd done the previous year. This part of the conference is always fun, but this year I nearly shit my pants when Andy Miller accepted the journalism award. He is the journalist, along with Alan Judd, who broke the story for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about all the deaths in the state hospitals in Georgia. The "Hidden Shame" series is still going on, and it has shaken the state office to its core. You can see an overview of all the articles and the fallout at this webpage, hosted by the Network. Andy Miller is a hero to all consumers in Georgia who are at risk of being admitted or committed to one of Georgia's seven state hospitals. He and Alan, through these articles, are our strongest voices to the state right now. I was totally taken by surprise when I saw Andy there. Wow wow wow!
The mental health system in Georgia is ranked one of the lowest in the country. I think it's #45 but I may be wrong. I know it's in the 40s out of 50 states. They also got a D grade on the prestigious NAMI report card. Not that I give a crap about NAMI but it's enough for our governor to call a special meeting to hear how Georgia can raise its grade.
One the other side of this great divide is Peer Support, which is ranked number one in the country. Guess which programs the state has decided to cut? Can you say Peer Support? Very good.
The more ridiculous our state becomes, the more obvious it appears before the public. So go ahead, Georgia, DHR, Sonny Perdue, get as ridiculous as possible so that any person with an ounce of common sense can see all the damage you are doing. When the public takes notice, things finally get addressed, and people get voted out of office, appointees get replaced, burned-out bureaucrats get lost. So keep doing what you're doing, Georgia. You are only hanging yourself.
Forgive them, for they know not what they do.
Seriously, they are incredibly blind.
I know why this is happening! The people who are in charge of the mental health system, the policy makers, the doctors, nurses, case managers, and even the family members do not believe in the capacity and the intrinsic value of individuals they are supposed to be helping. Not only do they not believe in recovery, but they impose their disempowering beliefs onto some of the most intelligent, compassionate, and creative individuals in the state of Georgia. If only they knew what I know. If only they saw what I see. If only they believed.
But you can't force a belief onto someone else. You can't make a policy saying you must believe in the consumers you serve. This is why I have little hope of the system truly transforming. If changes are going to be made, they will most likely be made outside the system from people who actually get it. And these angels of hope will be offering strong, recovery-based alternatives to some of our most vulnerable citizens. You may even be one of those angels. I know I am.