The Peer Professional and the House Negro

We’re not sick anymore and we’re still not  equal in the system that calls us peer professionals

When reflecting on my time in the peer movement in mental health I couldn’t help but think of Malcolm X and his extended metaphor of the house negro and the field negro.

Institutional & systemic discrimination in the mental health system today is not only covert today its overt in the emerging peer movement. Wearing two hats as a clinician and peer I discovered how these two worlds intersect and reinforce methods of social control & fear of diagnosed persons in the mental health system.

To understand the relationship between Malcolm’s house negro and the Peer Professional, just think of Modernity’s Slavery Education in Mental Health. The mental health system uses the peer movement today as an apparatus of social control and a device to preserve the relationship of the diagnosed person and the system that maintains its housing, medications, health and safety of a community which continues to misunderstand mental illness. In many ways, the peer welcomes new diagnosed persons into the broken system and prepares them to deal with its most difficult aspects. Peers are sent out and told to showcase a better life upon accepting the given treatment or available services that meet the requirements of the mental health system.

At many levels, peers know the system better than their providers, after all, they lived it and experienced it. There is no question that peers are the house Negros of today’s mental health system. The question is, why isn’t this knowledge by peers accessed by those in power to change the system? The answer is simple, our voices are oppressed. Until the system accepts the roles of all participants in the system as equal and important there will be a less than and until that day treatment will continue to target the fears of providers and not the stigma that corrupts successful interventions.

  • It wasn’t until I became a peer that I feared speaking up about unjust inequalities in the system.

  • It wasn’t until I said I had a mental health diagnosis that I feared being my authentic self out of paranoia that people would think my illness was mismanaged.

It wasn’t until my time in the peer movement that I realized how far we have to go before the system sees people with mental health problems as human and not walking, breathing and eating social problems to be managed and controlled by the system once served us.

Max E. Guttman LCSW

Max Guttman is the owner of Recovery Now in New York. Max provides psychotherapy, complex case management, community consultation, and self-management skill-building groups. His approach is based on evidenced-based practices (EBP). Max earned a master’s degree in Social Work from Binghamton University. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) and a field instructor for both postgraduate and undergraduate students at Lehman College. He is also a social work supervisor and psychotherapist at Courtlandt Avenue Clinic in the South Bronx where he teaches students social work praxis in New York City. In addition to this responsibilities, he manages Mental Health Affairs, a mental health blog.

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