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Insisting on the truth

January 1, 2009
by Lori Ashcraft, PhD, William A. Anthony, PhD, Ed Knight, PhD, and Peter Ashenden
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Empower staff to feel safe to share their recovery stories

An unspoken assumption about the behavioral healthcare field is that an inherent value is placed on the truth. We talk about helping people move out of denial so they can recognize the truth in their lives; we ferret out the true causes of illness; and we help people understand their own truth. Yet when it comes to living our own truth, behavioral healthcare professionals seem just as likely as anyone else to avoid it when it's uncomfortable.

A pervasive example is the hush-hush approach many adhere to about discussing personal experiences of mental illness. The truth is that many behavioral healthcare professionals have been diagnosed with a mental illness at some time in their lives. Yet instead of using this as an asset and a bridge for connecting to those they serve, this information usually is kept out of sight—undisclosed.”

We decided this truth was worth shining the light on because sharing our experiences is powerful and makes an amazing difference. When we speak our own truth about recovering from mental illnesses, we lessen the influence of our strongest foes: prejudice and discrimination. What if we all could share our lives more deeply without fear of retribution?

Retribution is a fairly strong word, but let's not shy away from it. Let's take it on! The four of us have had so many people tell us at conferences where we've shared our personal recovery stories that they'd like to share their own experiences too. When we asked them what holds them back, they describe fears of retribution and discrimination at their workplaces.

The more we thought about this, the more we realized the profound contradiction: Those who have chosen a behavioral healthcare career can't admit to experiencing the same challenges that plague those they serve. We know that prejudice in behavioral healthcare settings can be stronger than anywhere else, and that prejudice doesn't stop with the people we serve. It extends to those who deliver services. We want to help remove these prejudicial attitudes and discriminatory practices in behavioral healthcare professionals' workplaces.

If we could make it safer for behavioral healthcare professionals to talk about their own personal or family experiences of living with mental illnesses, we could have a dramatic impact on prejudice and discrimination toward staff and service users. Furthermore, this could open the door of “mutuality” for professionals, which has been a key factor in making peer support such a valuable asset in the healing professions.

Research on prejudice and discrimination tells us that the most effective way to wipe them out is through personal relationships and truthful information. For example, say a new family moves into your neighborhood. You meet them and like them. Your kids are the same age as theirs. You see them each morning because you walk your dogs at the same time. Some mornings you walk together, and a friendship develops between you. One morning they tell you that they have medical appointments coming up.

“Anything serious?” you ask.

“Just routine, but we're looking forward to it because both my son and I may need a medication adjustment.”

You're a little concerned so you ask, “What are the medications for?”

“Both my son and I have been diagnosed with a mental illness, and we take medications regularly and also go to self-help programs to keep us on an even keel.”

By now your connection with your neighbors is strong enough that your compassion for them prevents any adverse reactions you may have otherwise felt.

Campaigns against prejudice and discrimination during the past few years have taught us that this scenario and others like it regularly play out in communities nationwide. They are working. Yet what's keeping these same techniques from being effective at our own workplaces? Why are we afraid to tell each other that we have the same conditions as those we provide services to? Why have we shied away from telling those we serve that we have the same conditions they are trying to recover from?

Perhaps we prefer the illusion of being the “well ones” who help the “sick ones.” Once we realize our “oneness,” the invisible curtain of the “we/they” duality begins to rise, and we get uncomfortable about what might be exposed. It's then that we realize we are no longer immune, and that we too could become entangled in mental illness's gnarly tentacles.

Lori's experience

Even if we feel safe enough to raise the curtain, it's still not easy to talk about our vulnerabilities. Here's a brief description of what it was like for Lori. Notice how hard it was for her to speak up, and how difficult it was for the team to know how to respond.

“When I first realized that recovery was possible for me, I was able to start telling people about my own personal experience with mental illnesses. The hardest place to talk about this was at work. I wanted to speak up but I also wanted to be a member of the team and to just go along with the thinking of the group. The longer I didn't speak up, the more resentful I became toward my team because I felt they weren't focusing on people's potential to recover. When people who were receiving services would give the team a hard time, I wanted to cheer. I remember one time a member of the clinical team complained that the ‘consumer’ refused to let her into her house, and I wanted to stand up and shout ‘yes!’