The peer movement and Wellness Recovery Action Planning helped revolutionize my approach to therapy and being a real person. In some ways I am grateful but still there are ways I am dissatisfied with the way too many peers perpetuate neocolonialism in the system.
I always struggled with the way the peer movement’s best practice, WRAP, attempts to define consumer values and ethics. It started out as a small sense of internal discomfort. But somehow the, “you cannot practice WRAP unless you uphold its values and ethics,” has become more a bone of contention for me twelve years after the concept was first introduced to me.
Values and ethics—it’s something you hear a great deal about in the consumer movement. ‘It’s important to understand our values, ethics and history,” you may hear a leader say. The more I stop letting myself feel victimized and alienated by these voices who have seemed to treat me just like my family of origin did, the more I start to see this as socially violent stance.
As I have grown as a therapist and built my own private counseling theory, I have reflected on my experiences studying different counseling theories and crossing cultural divides. I have found myself equating the imposition of values, ethics, and fidelity measures more and more with neo-colonialism, greed, manifest destiny, best practice, rather than with liberation and justice.
If you want to avoid the potential of inflicting generalizations on multitudes of people, don’t overreach. Don’t say it is a universally researched practice. Most certainly don’t say it’s an international movement with these values and ethics. Think about defining who you are and who you represent before you spread out with megalomania and glee.
I believe when you start imposing values and ethics, you bear the risk of invading other regions, extracting local resources for your benefit, and starting political feuds. Sure, we all want to affect sorely needed change, but there is a way to go about that so that you don’t create more of the same insanity.
Remember as you spread out into different regions, there is a lot to learn. It is not wise to suggest that because you have research that your way will work in a different geopolitical landscape.
Recognize that as you spread out your ideas, you become at risk of spreading gossip, gaslighting, and bullying people. Remember in any region there will be winners and losers in the system. The winners will be more likely to befriend you and move up by spreading venom and dominating others. Is it really worth it to sacrifice your ideals, just to have things your way in a foreign context?
If you want to promote change in the way you believe is best based on your experience in your region, marginalized cultures from other regions will find white, patriarchal, wealthy, prestigious, and exploitive. (For some reason people of color don’t tend to write and own these practices as far as I can tell.) Many may smile and honor you to your face, but they also may sense another layer of oppression added to their burden.
What Might Happen When You Overextend Your Perspective:
I don’t think these kinds of unintended consequences need to exist. I think it is possible to avoid them.
However, I do know for sure ways that I have been treated when values and ethics clash with portions of my experience that are real, idiosyncratic and rebellious. It burns me. It preoccupies my mind. Parts of me who have been most abused and hurt emerge. And, no, I won’t just give in and sip the tea!
It’s not hard to define who you are and what you’ve done and consider the geopolitical circumstances that have enabled you to be successful. Defining the limits of your approach is just as important as making a social change. If you’ve been successful, let go of your work and let others interpret and learn from it. Indeed, this approach seems to me to be the way to go.
In WRAP, for example, Mary Ellen Copeland does a good job defining her culture and her story. When she does this, she defines who she is and what her landscape is like. However instead of telling us the limits of her vantage point, we get values and ethics that we must maintain whether we are operating in an urban shelter, a county jail, or a New England Community Center.
Don’t get me wrong, there are aspects of the WRAP program that can travel into different contexts and do extraordinary things. But I do want to consider that what is needed to avoid institutionalization can be different in different areas.
For example, in my WRAP training, which happened twelve years ago, there was a participant who wanted to bring up the fact that he killed a person. I recognize there were vulnerable people in the group who might not have felt comfortable with that reality. Indeed, at times in my madness journey that would have been challenging for me. Indeed, it is arguable that it was a murder that I uncovered that set me into madness in the first place.
But because I was well, I was curious about what the participant was getting at and felt the participant was further shamed. When that participant was shut down and told not to do that in a WRAP group, I couldn’t help contrasting it to other challenges that were brought to light by other people. I ended up thinking that we lost an opportunity to learn something real.
I don’t mean to challenge the leader who was really powerful and helped me a lot, but I think that issue depends on the context. There were some participants who were high up in the county power structure who were participating in the training. I imagine they could have negatively judged the program if those boundaries weren’t set.
At the same time there are some places where that issue needs to be addressed. In fact, back in state hospital where there were lifers, I needed to have that issue addressed. Maybe my concerns and feelings couldn’t be addressed in a warehouse setting. I lived among whispers among us clients about those among us who had killed. I was far too invisible to have concerns addressed. And I was too branded as the entitled, out-of-state, political-prisoner who deserved to be ignored.
In short, how might it feel in a jail where every person is facing those fears and concerns to have that issue remain invisible. And so I ask: does the best practice become institutional by denying those realities? Does the need for funding and mainstream acceptance dilute the practice?
How to Know When You Are Engaging in Neo-Colonialism
To be honest, my experience with WRAP has very little to do with my motivation for writing this blog. I make these observations based on more personal experiences with other peer movements. It has been my frustration with things I’ve seen along the way that makes me challenge the way social change happens in the industry at large.
It’s true that everybody needs money to survive. When movements sweep into town based on research and try to change the way we understand trauma, change substance abuse patterns or motivate people to get back to work, they need money to survive. However, in these times the streets are jammed up with homeless encampments. It seems like things just get worse and worse. In spite of lots of innovation, recovery seems to rarely trickle down to the homeless and institutionalized.
Part of mental health is about the exponentially increasing disparities between the haves and the have-nots. When administrators import ideas that worked elsewhere without looking to their own region for people who know the local economy and realities shit storms will arise.
In the industry we have people who are so removed from the ground making the decisions that affect recovery movements it gets ridiculous. They may move from state to state in insular administrative jobs and fail to connect with the people in the trenches who need to be trained and who need to likewise contribute from their own views and notions of justice.
When I consider stories that sparked movements like the one that Marious Romme, Sandra Escher, and Betsy Kline tell, I get excited about the potential for much needed change. But when my work and contribution is overlooked because it failed to follow a charter of ethics that is written in a different country for people of totally different social realities, I get upset. When large payments go out to international travelers from people who won’t even consider supporting my efforts, indeed, I get frustrated.
I understand that some really great people made them up, but I also see that I am surrounded by really great people who are coming back from homelessness and need to be empowered to discover what works best for them. They deserve to be heard more than me. If you come to town and they speak up, honor them. No need to overwhelm them with your superiority.
Hell, I mad similar mistakes and even been suckered by a story of how a few mental health consumers built a recovery empire out of the Southwestern dust. Yes, I allowed myself to be hired by them and be deeply wounded by them. I am lucky I survived that fiasco.
But when any best practice comes to town with their fidelity measures and fails to acknowledge local socioeconomic issues like housing challenges, generations of poverty and slavery and how those issues impact their workers, I start to think about neocolonial transfer of money and resources away from our county. When you start formulating ethics and values or fidelity measures from the geopolitical contexts out of which you arise that you start to create hypocrisy and neo-colonialism.
Moreover, when you find yourself having to gaslight, gossip, bully, slander or politically marginalize people to justify your own position and salary, you are probably engaging in neocolonialism. I just thought some leaders might like to know in case it applies to them.
Peer movements are not responsible for the vast amount of disparity that exists between top administrator salaries (and between a therapy salary or a peer administrator salary for that matter) and the abysmal resources available to subjects confined in squalor in board and care homes.
It is not my intention to diminish the achievements of the peer movement either. The peer movement has helped change the language used in public policy. It has vastly improved the system by allowing peer workers in the work force. It has inspired many people to improve their wellness.
I wouldn’t dare say what I have to say about values and ethics to researched best practices. Okay maybe that’s not entirely true. I am an entitled paranoid loud mouth! Maybe that’s why I felt sanctioned in my HVN training.
But I tend to see the peer movement as being far better able to consider my comments than I would other best practices with high level academic platforms surrounded by elite university Ph.D. titles. It’s true though that in these days of disparity even peer movements also have educated platforms behind them.
I think everyone of us in the peer movement can do a little better with avoiding neo-colonialism. I think that questioning the need to impose values and ethics is a great place to start. I think that each peer services worker needs to tend to the gardens it their own backyard, without trying to incorporate themselves into the mechanisms of agribusiness.
When the way you do things becomes the only way to go. When you have to gossip and slander others to make a name for yourself and, then, gaslight upon confrontation, you are wearing a neocolonial wig.
I think the peer movement is doing a good job in many ways, why sell out and try to join a false best practice bandwagon. Why not try to be just a little bit better.