But Youíre Not Like My Consumers!

Reneť Kopache
May 2001

During the past year Iíve spoken to mental health professionals at various functions about recovery from mental illness and my personal recovery experiences. The opportunity to speak about my mental illness and my recovery from it has been tremendously healing and has further enhanced my recovery. Likewise, provider feedback has indicated that, by sharing their experiences, consumers have helped mental health professionals gain a better understanding of mental health recovery.

Unfortunately, one disturbing factor has surfaced over the course of giving these presentations about my illness and recovery from it. It appears that Iím not like other people with mental illness! Over and over and over again Iíve been told, "Renee, your presentation was great but I donít have any consumers like you. The consumers I work with are much more ill than you."

Aside from completely discrediting the painfully difficult work that Iíve done to overcome the negative impacts of my illness, these comments reflect the belief that only a select few consumers are capable of engaging in the recovery process.

The fact is that all consumers are capable of engaging in the recovery process. There are only two limiting factors: the consumerís willingness and the treatment providerís perceptions of that consumerís abilities. Both occur, but it appears that many mental health professionals, due to their perceptions, prevent recovery from being a reality for many individuals with severe mental illness.

All consumers are capable of engaging in the recovery process, but many require the prompting and support of their treatment providers. As long as I hear mental health professionals say to me "youíre not like my consumers," there will be many consumers who arenít given the opportunity to move beyond mere maintenance. Incidentally, for many consumers, the willingness comes after being told itís possible. After a sense of hope is instilled within them.

Itís not fair for professionals to compare who I am today, after years of working on improving my life, with consumers who have yet begun the recovery process. From 1989 to 1999 I was in the hospital over 50 times, on over 40 different medications, survived three suicide attempts and 23 ECTs. Iíve been banned from the grounds of a hospital due to my "threat of violence." My body is covered with scars from cutting and cigarette burns. Numerous doctors have refused to treat me because my "symptoms are too severe" for them too treat. I am like "your" consumers. The only difference is that Iím further along the recovery journey than some other consumers.

Even with the progress that Iíve made in my recovery, I am still like your consumers. Itís just not evident when I stand in front of you and speak about recovery from mental illness. That is one of the roles in which I function well. However, I still struggle with my illness. What you donít see is the person who frequently spends her evenings entertaining thoughts of suicide and/or self-injury. You donít see the anger that sometimes engulfs my entire being or my battles with loneliness and my fear of social interaction. You donít see the Indy 500 that races in my brain as I try to go to sleep at night. You assume that because I appear functional as I stand in front of you and articulately share my thoughts and experiences that I am equally functional in other areas of my life. My therapist and case manager would tell you otherwise.

Every consumer defines his or her own recovery. What appears to frequently occur is that mental health professionals hear consumers like myself speak at a training event and assume that all consumers have to be like us to be considered "in recovery" or capable of recovery.

Just like all other human beings, consumers have varying skills, talents, goals, abilities and dreams. Would you ask a plumber to perform open-heart surgery on you? Or, if you need a plumber, are you going to call a surgeon? Of course not, but both the plumber and the surgeon possess valuable, yet different skills.

Consumers are no different. If you need a website created, I can do that for you. But, if you want a beautiful piece of art or to know how to get from point A to point B on a bus, you better ask a different consumer. We simply have different skills, talents and abilities. Just because some of us are able to stand in front of people and speak, doesnít mean that all consumers have to be able to, or want to, in order for them to be capable of successfully fighting their mental illness. It also doesnít mean that we donít struggle with other aspects of our life.

Rather than comparing "your" consumers with those of us who share our knowledge and experiences, maybe it would be prudent for mental health professionals to focus on helping the consumers they work with identify his or her skills, talents, goals and dreams. From there, professionals have all the ingredients necessary to facilitate consumer recovery.

Recovery is about growth, creating a meaningful life, getting better, reconnecting with society, etc. Once weíve accomplished this, please donít disrepute it by suggesting that we arenít as ill as your consumers; or worse, implying that we werenít really mentally ill to begin with. If you had cancer and successfully endured chemotherapy, how would you feel if a doctor told you that youíre not like his or her patients or that you never really had cancer to begin with?