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City Voices Asks You to Get Involved

By Dan Frey, Director, City Voices, http://www.cityvoicesonline.org

Anyone can get involved within their community in order to strengthen the abilities of peers in recovery from mental health, or substance use concerns. Building this type of bridge is easier with the support of a mentor. I had one named Ken Steele. Ken was well known, and effective during his time. He was the founder of City Voices, the only newspaper in New York State that provides a platform for peers to share their voice with mental health experiences, and the founder of the Mental Health Voter Empowerment project, which registered 28,000 people to vote in NYS. His project would have gone national had he not passed away suddenly at the age of 52. No one to my knowledge has really taken up the cause of organizing people with mental health diagnoses into a voting bloc since Ken.

Ken took some heat for the major project-funding he received from a pharmaceutical company, his close relationship to the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health America, formerly known as the National Mental Health Association. I believe that some of these groups still honor Ken’s name with an annual award given to peers who have made an outstanding contribution. Ken managed the funds, spending it on his projects and on people instead of himself.

Twenty years since Ken died, the City Voices newspaper is still going, gradually working its way back to Ken Steele-levels of distribution. In every issue we include content of value for the peer workforce. No longer dependent on a big pharm, we raise money from subscriptions, advertising, and donations. In addition to the newspaper, we facilitate, and hope to grow peer-worker support groups, increase our web and social media visibility, and to start a mentoring project.

All of these projects are volunteer-based, some stipends issued, but not salary-based. It’s a lot of work that requires a willing negotiation, compromise, teamwork, empathy, and respect for individual, and collective boundaries in correlation with lived experiences. We do this type of work because we strive for a world where we, who have diagnoses, can feel like we belong and have the right to achieve our bliss. Voices is fiscally sponsored by Baltic Street AEH, the largest employer of people with lived experiences in NYS.

It took me 8-months of fighting to get a peer specialist to work with me through HARP, or health home services because I believe peer-support is essential for my recovery. I was a peer advocate for a couple of years well before the days of certification. I had a relapse in my mental health during the course of working. I envision a peer workforce that embodies “the dignity of risk and the right to fail.” We all take risks when we leave the safety of public benefits to be self-sufficient with adequate employment. If we “fail” and take a few steps back, we should have caring people in our lives to help us get back up; someone to help us navigate through our own regressions and check in from time to time to make sure that we are okay. Mentoring can act as a vital intervention, and maintenance support.

I would like to see the peer workforce more organized. A lot of peer specialists believe a union could help get their voices heard without being penalized for speaking out on the job. The peer workforce would benefit from collaborative discussions regarding strategic responses to job-related issues, which include the right to a pleasant, non-hostile work environment where workers aren’t overworked and underpaid.

Like Ken was, I am a person with a serious mental health diagnosis, living in supported housing and receiving government assistance. Despite how people receiving benefits are perceived and stigmatized in our society, we have the greatest ability to give back to the community. What better way is there to spend our recovery time then to actively assist others through their own recovery and wellness? We can act as a supportive force for society, our peers, and those who are not classified as mental health recipients as well. For someone who has struggled so hard to navigate a mental health concern, having a supportive impact on even just one person is a great achievement.

I really hope our mentoring project takes wing, as mentoring helped me to stay active and engaged. I believe it can have the same impact on someone else. This year I am celebrating 10 years free of institutionalization and I hope to help others stay clear of that too.

Please send me a message if you want to get involved with City Voices: CityVoices1995@gmail.com or visit http://www.cityvoicesonline.org – the web address may change in time, but the email should remain. We are seeking people with lived experience in mental health or substance use who can do any of the following: write, edit, mentor, mentee, organize, co-facilitate, sell, share, social media, web design, computer work, speak, or learn. Most work can be done virtually anywhere, while some work depends on being near New York City. I look forward to hearing from you.

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