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Advocates that stigmatize

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There is a big problem in the world of mental health activism. Looking past the usual roadblocks in legislation, reform, and even the encampments within the mental health community is a problem often ignored. Those bleeding heart advocates are discriminatory, biased, and judgemental. Advocates, human rights experts, and people who support and “ally” with victimized people are often not unassailable. In my own experience, I have found some advocates to be even more stigmatizing and destructive than the average layperson uninvolved and apathetic to mental health reform. 

I have met some nasty, mean-spirited, and hateful advocates. Advocates can seem or appear very angry. For some, anger is a driving force. For others, it is a source of energy and the wellspring of their spirit. Most advocates I know are a little self-involved. As a therapist, I understand that seeming self-involved can result from surviving PTSD or trauma. I also appreciate that self-involvement is a damaging coping skill for these folks. Many of these folks create maladaptive patterns of behavior. While I understand psychology, I still dont think anyone should be issued a pass on being decent or anything less than prosocial, kind, and respectful.

The destruction and social fallout can be retraumatizing for everyone involved. Depending on the scale, often, untoward behavior and public displays from advocates in mental health are vicious, cruel, and often unfounded. I have witnessed advocates turn on eachother, sometimes, long-term friends or colleagues, then turn inward like a shooter without options. 

I have been the victim of trauma. But, I spent many complicated, labored hours unpacking my ‘stuff’ and reflecting on how I could better understand and relate with others more pro-socially. Again, in graduate school, I did the same thing with my peers to prepare myself for professional help as a social worker. So, when I am the victim of another advocate, hell-bent on telling me, “I am a danger to people with disabilities” (SIC. The late Darby Penny), I call foul.

Admittedly, I’m afraid I have to disagree with the newest, most PC rhetoric. I have to question the integrity and ethics of the accuser and intention. I genuinely apologize if the purpose is cheerful and good-natured and further educates me. I am fearful that I am correct and that the intent is malicious. Advocates prepare others to understand better their rights as mental health patients in treatment settings like hospitals and other spaces where they can be vulnerable to abuse and other trauma from workers who are there not to help but to terrorize. As an advocate, I provide this information and other skills and services I can offer vulnerable people.

Let’s pause here and ask: “Why more education? Why am I at the other end of the finger-pointing, suggesting I am hurting the people I serve?”

Another question that lingers is why advocates are so critical of other advocates. And what is this teaching anyone or modeling about behavior? It’s not; even worse, the behavior can set people up for failure in a world that can be unforgiving.

As a therapist and social worker, I prepare folks for the hospital and arm them with a vast, deep, and eclectic language and skill set that spans many perspectives and theories within the mental health dogma that is accepted, contested, and still up for debate.

In my work, I prepare people for dark times. I don’t sugarcoat everything. And when one of my clients is in a tough spot, empowering them with the correct information is more critical than most PC information. So, listen when the nurse speaks and be cooperative because your rights are in their hands.

In inpatient settings and many out-of-home placements in the mental health system, patient rights may be in someone else’s hands that may not care about the law. In the face of many crimes against mental health patients in these settings, I would caution against pushing the envelope. Sometimes, people, including advocates, need to stop being so hypercritical and less dismissive.

I spoke with an older peer recanting about one of her hospitalizations years ago. The staff needed her to move rooms for whatever reason. She didn’t want to go. and asked the nurse in charge, “What if I don’t go?” she asked the nurse.

The nurse said, “I’ll drag your legs across the floor if I have to get you out of here.”

The next time a ‘PC’ or ‘woke’ advocate talks about the ‘worthiness’ of fellow advocates, remember safety comes first. Because last time I checked, it’s much easier to be loud on the internet than walk back lousy advice to people trapped in terrible situations.

Pathologizing advocates believe people with schizophrenia and more severe diagnoses are less likely to heal and recover. Some feel sure about people with similar diagnoses like mine, who are ‘less than, sicker, and less trustworthy to adhere to our treatment.’

Advocates say downright mean-spirited and malicious things about people with schizophrenia. Some might seem like they are even cheering you on, albeit condescending. Others will be openly critical and negative towards people with more severe and complex clinical pictures.

Advocates will gaslight people. Given bias, discrimination, and diagnosis, stigmatizing other advocates is what we were supposed to fight against as advocates in the public mental health system. 

Even peer advocates can be stigmatizing. The impact is catastrophic for people expecting direct and non-judgemental support in the system. We need to do something about this: expose people who harbor these ideas and discharge them from their jobs as advocates.

About the Author

J. Peters

Max Guttman is the owner of Recovery Now, a private mental health practice in New York City. Through his work as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, therapist, and disability rights advocate, Max fights for those without a voice in various New York City care systems. He received a ‘2020 Bearcats of the Last Decade 10 Under 10’ award from the Binghamton University Alumni Association.

Guttman treats clients with anxiety and depression but specializes in issues related to psychosis or schizoaffective spectrum disorders. He frequently writes about his lived experiences with schizophrenia.

‘I knew my illness was so complex that I’d need a professional understanding of its treatment to gain any real momentum in recovery,’ Guttman says. ‘After undergraduate school and the onset of my illness, I evaluated different graduate programs that could serve as a career and mechanism to guide and direct my self-care. After experiencing the helping hand of my social worker and therapist right after my ‘break,’ I chose social work education because of its robust skill set and foundation of knowledge I needed to heal and help others.’

‘In a world of increasing tragedy, we should help people learn from our lived experiences. My experience brings humility, authenticity, and candidness to my practice. People genuinely appreciate candidness when it comes to their health and Recovery. Humility provides space for mistakes and appraisal of progress. I thank my lived experience for contributing a more egalitarian therapeutic experience for my clients.’

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