But Youíre Not Like My Consumers!
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
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
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 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?