Sometimes (seldomly), I get pretty cheesed off at behavioral health meetings. Typically, the initialization lies entirely with one meeting attendee or another “talking around” peers, especially when throwing about metrics as the guiding principle behind peer services. It’s like, “Dude, we’ve got some peers right here at the table. Ask us. We’ll tell you which services we need.”

When a meeting goes so off the rails in terms of effectiveness and purpose, there are three sayings I wedge into the conversation. Want to hear them? Hang tight.

“Please remember, if it wasn’t for peers having mental illnesses, none of us would be sitting at this table right now.”

“Please remember, while we sit at this table debating, peers are in crisis right now and need services right now.”

“Please remember, while most of you get to clock out at the end of the work day and go home, we peers go home with our mental health issues, we don’t get a break from our mental health issues, and we’re on the clock every second of every day.”

Clarity is important, and another statement I share at these meetings as a lead in is, “I thank you personally and sincerely for dedicating your life’s work to helping me and my friends live a life of joy and success.” Even with this lead in, I’ve been called “arrogant”, “ungrateful”, “offending”, “naive”, “uneducated”, “insulting”… which are all complimentary in a way. To feel such strong emotions from three simple truths must mean that my detractors unavoidably are digesting the meaning and purpose of these three simple truths. It’s hard being led away from the preconceptions of a professional comfort zone.

There is another truth embedded in this rhetoric, and it’s a tougher one to tackle because it is such a deep-seated stigma owned by behavioral health professionals. This truth is truly insulting, and it is quite often strongly believed by the legislators and mental health professionals tasked with creating the laws and services that help us make our lives more joyful and more successful. It’s a reality, it’s a truth, and here it is:

To have a mental health diagnosis means you are also intellectually deficient.

There is no easier illustration of this stigma than something I heard for so long when I first began volunteering my time as a peer advocate. It was puzzling where this stigma began, and it wasn’t just one or two people vomiting this particular rainbow. It was many, many people in the behavioral health world, and it was many, many people who felt they were paying me a compliment.

“Steve, you are so articulate for a consumer.”

How was I supposed to take this? Wisely, I had to squelch the impulsive retorts such as “You are so tall for a midget” or “You are so opinionated for a mindless toadstool.” So articulate for a consumer… just wild.

Of course, silver linings abound, and while my friend Robert often was upset because the folks we attend meetings with (our professional colleagues) treated us in such an obvious manner (in terms of dismissive language, tone, and behavior) as uneducated lessers, I often told him that we are being given a gift. It might seem logically confusing that being told “You are so articulate for a consumer” is in any way a gift, so my explanation must be simple and clear. The presumption that peers are intellectually deficient means these ill-informed individuals are underestimating us. And since we peers attend these meetings with the goal of using our life experiences to direct the policies and services that affect us directly, being underestimated allows us to circumvent detractors accustomed to peers without passionate advisement or a clarity of purpose.

Trust me on this one. This is a common attitude, and it is intellectually dishonest to deny this commonality. Fire away, because I’m “arrogant”, “ungrateful”, “uneducated”, and so on and so on and so on. It doesn’t diminish the fact that by saying someone is “so articulate” the true meaning is “I’m surprised that your (insert social segment) has remarkable verbal, logical, and intellectual skills closer to my own.” Peers having the gumption to contradict this backhanded platitude is something else that can be unwelcome to the ears of behavioral health professionals.

My friend Taren stated once that a personality such as mine is a necessary evil, a blunt tool to break down cognitive and logical misconceptions, and in the most Kuhnsian manner I help foster in more accurate models of matching the peer experience to peer services. A battering ram rather than a feather I believe is an accurate metaphor.

Look, creating havoc and discord is not why peers attend behavioral health meetings. It’s simple to complain, it’s harder to create solutions. We are looking for useful collaboration to create these solutions to help us make the most of our lives. That’s it. Nothing nefarious. And there are these three simple truths peers must make clear, and these three simple truths are not purposely contrary or aggressive. They are intended to be helpful and guiding. They are the realities of the peer experience, and this is peer advisement that is essential and crucial to our advocacy efforts.