There is an unspoken, invisible and arbitrary standard for being for every oppressed group living in the United States and everywhere discrimination goes without question. This social norm and standard of being exists even in the helping profession and the social welfare system for its staff, direct-service workers, and anyone working to further reform and create spaces for social justice and advocacy in our communities. In the world of the modern mental health diagnosis and diagnostic therapies in social work, health and medicine it makes it extremely difficult to think and live outside this world of biases and stigma. The standard I am talking about exists in the professional helping realm more for peers and people whom have disclosed their lived experience than any other discipline in mental health. Peers are constantly evaluated and informally assessed by their colleagues for their quality of health and level of so-called level of functioning to be considered either work ready or successful in their endeavors.
In every agency I have worked for there was a secret conversation, informal meeting, and ongoing dialogue about a particular peers mental health status when an incident or unexpected event occurred. For example, if a peer called out sick, or there was a new and unusual behavior in the peer’s day–to-day disposition, all of the sudden, that peers competency was under question. The etiology of this discrimination is explored in my blog entry The Peer Professional and the House Negro and in Addendum to the House Negro & Peer Professional: Not all Allegories are Created Equal .Therapists and psychologists without any lived experience are somehow above reproach, outside, and between the rules for social norms, healthy attitudes and people’s perception of healthy living and interpersonal rules of engagement. I knew plenty of professionals that would talk about their “fucked up marriage” or “explosive” behaviors at personal social functions in their lives but somehow, someway, these professionals werent considered sick or in need of treatment. This always struck me as bizarre and unfair for peers wanting to feel comfortable in their own shoes being themselves without fear of losing their jobs or respect from their colleagues. This disparity was so visible and yet so brazenly discriminatory in the jobs i have had that I have suffered trauma from the entire experience working as a peer with lived experience.
As a peer, my education, my disposition, and all my experiences were and always will be under the radar. Given we live in a world of stereotypes, and discrimination, and labels, peers are judged by other team members when working with others in mental health on interdisciplinary teams and colleagues not for their skills but if they are still un-symtomatic, or not quite healed yet, or still in need of further recovery to be hailed as successful and even ready to work. I know this because I have openly disclosed my lived experience, and worked as a clinician. I have heard the comments from collegues, the smirks, the language thrown around the watercolor regarding their fellow peers and the peer’s abilities as if their skills are somehow calculated and a general summary of their perceived progress and status of their recovery from a diagnosis. My point is a peers worth and abilities seems to be summarized as a general accounting of their level of so-called functioning. The Myth of High Functioning is very clear on how this myth operates in the mental health system. A peers ability is determined by clinicians and their colluegues in the system to be only as good as their ability to come across and seem healthy to their fellow team members or agency members. The standard is ourageosuly absurd as it is aritary. Since there is no clinical determination or way of assessing seeming healthy, the peers is trapped in a world of illusion, discrimination, and an altogether unnatural mode of living.
The standard requires peers to demonstrate their skills and talents to help people heal, be publicly comfortable with their own problems, and work alongside social workers and others in the helping profession with the same or more serious issues but somehow be regarded as less able to compartmentalize their issues or engage in self-care. In my opinion, this is evidence of a standard and attitude that favors and privileges one side of the binary in the mental health system and is the most decisive division between clinicians and peers in the helping profession. Refer to the Living in Two Worlds: Navigating the Intersections of Health and Healing for more information on living within a duality and its intersections with the day-to-day affairs of working in the system-of-care, social service agencies, and programs serving people with a mental health diagnosis while openly disclosing lived experience. We peers are no different than from the clinicians with the same problems and issues. We all have lived experience, the question is, are we managing enough to meet our personal expectations for ourselves and health and wellness?
Ultimately, our own self-awareness, use of self-disclosure and authenticity as helping professionals, regardless of our roles in the mental health system, will eventually trump the issues of systemic and cultural oppression interfering with peers being totally comfortable with their history. In The Fear of Self-Disclosure, I suggested that honesty is very much apart of the healing process. If we are as a culture to truly learn from our lived experiences than helpers, friends, family, and everyone needs to be less concerned with the judgments and biases of people so we never lose sight of our mission to share the message and learned lessons from others whom have walked in the same path in their recovery. People don’t have to always agree with you or like your personality, but if we start actively listening to everyone lnvolved in helping process mutually, the messages and skills we intend to pass on to other peers will be regarded as more important than prioritizing the arbitrary, misleading and disempowering image of professionalism disguised as the standard for peer work.