Consumer Empowerment Comes With A Paycheck

Disempowerment is a full time job, and that’s why I’m grateful to see an article like this one in The Guardian, bearing the headline, Why ‘putting the lunatics in charge of the asylum’ can work.

Who in their right mind would put “the lunatics in charge of the asylum”? While it may sound counter-intuitive, this approach has a long history. In 1793, the governor of an asylum at Bicêtre in France, Jean-Baptiste Pussin, noted: “When I employed a madman who had just recovered his senses, either to sweep or to assist a servant … his state improved every month, and somewhat later he was totally cured.” Pussin spoke from personal experience, he himself having been an inmate at Bicêtre 17 years earlier.

I kind of think it more absurd not to employ people who have recovered their senses than it is to employ them. If we have a lack of industry going, doing so represents a good way to expand it.

Across England, mental health services are employing “peer support workers”, for whom lived experience of mental health problems is an essential requirement of their job. These “role models of recovery” are able to give hope to people with long-term mental health problems.

Bravo! We’ve got something similar going on here in the states in many places where mental patients, or mental health consumers, after a short but intensive training, are being certified to work for the mental health field in a peer support capacity.

Why are these employment opportunities so important? (Re: disempowerment is a full time job.) Well, because work beats bullshit. The need to warehouse people is lessened where some of these people, or people formerly with ‘broken brains’ if you prefer, can be shown to work effectively in the brain repair business. Pardon my indulgence in the jargon of the trade.

Historically, the prevailing view of schizophrenia was that it was a degenerative illness and once diagnosed, you were faced with an inevitable decline. Anxious parents were told to give up hope of any kind of normal life for their once-promising son or daughter; that it was downhill from here on in. We now know this is absolutely not the case, but shifting these entrenched views within the mental health system is an ongoing challenge.

The expectation of irresponsibility is an easy one for a person to live down to. The expectation of responsibility is one that is often forgone for good once a person has received a serious psychiatric label. This responsibility in abeyance has engendered that category of people described as “adult children”. Some of these adults, amazingly enough, are fully capable of managing their own affairs.

We’re only talking about employing mental patients as peer support workers rather than turning over the governance of the asylum to them, but I foresee a time when the entire mental health system can be run by people with lived experience in that system. Psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers should become redundant when it is found that former mental patients can perform their roles with equal, if not superior, facility. Certainly with recovery rates as low as they can be today, some of these mental health professionals have utterly failed their clientele. (Sure, if ‘conventional wisdom’ has it that their clientelle have failed them, the professionals, so much for ‘conventional wisdom’!)

Apply a little bit of sense, and dispense with a great deal of nonsense. Any person who is financially dependent upon other people is in need of a salary and a job. Any person who is in need of a purpose in life, needs to be put to good use. The notion that we have broken and incapable people is not so apt as the notion that we have under-appreciated and under-utilized people. Isn’t it a shame, when you’ve got a meaningless routine, that purposeful activity is not always on the agenda?

The Institute of Psychiatry and Rethink, both mentioned in this article, are to be commended for promoting recovery in mental health services. Non-recovery, if you haven’t noticed, doesn’t work.