Sadly, it’s something I’ve heard and witnessed firsthand, over and over.
An established mental health advocate contacts me in distress. “What should I do?” they ask. “I know there has been misconduct by a person in the movement but I’m afraid to speak up about it. Now they want me to work with this person.”
Sexual misconduct. Misappropriation of funds. A campaign of slander. Abuse of power. Theft of research. Many people in the US are salivating over ethical misconduct these days because they can accuse the other political party of doing it. But here it is, being done by the leaders of recovery organizations, the leadership of peer advocacy, people who are part of the mental health recovery movement. Our colleagues and co-workers. Not “them.” Us.
It’s happened to me. Over and over, people approach me with this dilemma of what to do. One colleague called me up in distress (details have been changed here for reasons I think that should be obvious), because he was being asked to participate in what felt like a cover-up. An organization was planning to extend an invitation—and money—to an accused perpetrator. My colleague heard about and even witnessed misconduct, inappropriate sexual behavior, and conflicts of interest over the years. And now he was being pressured to join in, implicitly endorsing the behavior. But nobody talks about it. The people who try to raise the issue themselves start to be seen as the problem.
And so they ask me, “Will, what should I do?”
And now I’m asking you.
We have a problem in our movement. By “our movement” I mean the broader effort of mental health reform—recovery and peer support, survivors and consumers and professionals and family members, all of us pulling together to reform psychiatry. Our movement has a misconduct problem. And because the problem goes unaddressed, and the wrongdoers stay protected in power, the movement has a cover-up problem. Our movement is, as a result, in part, corrupt.
(“Corruption” is whenever a public mandate is improperly turned to serve personal interests.)
I don’t want to denounce our movement as just being corrupt, because there are so many people doing such great, tireless, caring work without real reward or recognition. There are good, very good people doing very good things in our movement. People are cared for and change is happening. And that’s part of the problem. Anytime an individual or group starts to focus too much on their goodness—and build a reputation or brand and a marketing campaign asking for money and support based on that goodness and righteous denunciation of the other (big pharma, abusive psychiatry, whoever)—they get into a trap where they can’t also be honest about their own mistakes. They can’t say “yes, you’re right, we are part of the problem, let’s get to work.” They need to hold on to their image of goodness, especially if it’s making money for them. So instead they deny, shut down, turn it around, and blame the person who is pointing out the problem. If worst comes to worst, they lawyer up and start intimidating anyone who dares criticize.
It shouldn’t surprise us that this happens in the very movements and groups we dedicate ourselves to and we so love. We are, after all, human. Human problems, the human shadow, follow us wherever we go.
But we can do better.
And we must do better, because we are a mental health movement. We have an even greater responsibility to be honest, responsive, to look at our mistakes and address our corruption. Because our values—the values we parade to the world and raise money and ask for support off of—demand it. We have values of compassion, being with, self-determination, and listening to each other. Caring for the vulnerable and powerless. We have to walk this talk.
(And I myself am front and center of who I mean when I say “we” need to be accountable. I do my best to respond and address anything I am called out on, and though I know I can do better, I really do honestly invite the openness and transparency and honesty I am advocating here. As hard as it is sometimes, it’s how I want to live, and it’s how I know I can learn and grow.)
My colleague who called me is in distress. He is in a genuine bind. He is “damned if you do and damned if you don’t.” If he tries to speak up, he risks retaliation, conflict, stress, being seen as the problem, alienating colleagues, undermining his own status… But if he doesn’t speak up he risks being part of a cover-up of mistreatment, abuse, misconduct, normalizing bad behavior going along with actions he knows in his heart are wrong… He’s in a bind.
And we know about binds in our movement, don’t we? Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Our movement, by not effectively addressing misconduct and corruption, is creating the same toxic dynamics we see so often in families, in schools, in a society that silences people and drives them into distress and madness. A family undergoes a lot of conflict and abuse, but does it beneath the surface, in secret. And no one talks about it, but everyone feels it, so one person, often the most vulnerable or sensitive, sends up acting out and being diagnosed psychotic. Likewise, our movement, by not addressing our own shadows with transparency and honesty, is actually helping to drive people crazy.
I can almost hear the sound of chairs being moved and people coughing. Those in power—by salaries or prestige or both—are clearing the room right now because, well, it’s the same denial of families, of schools, of society, isn’t it? The status quo avoids the truth and lets the mess fall on the people who speak up. Who wants a messy conflict around misconduct? The funders might get scared off, the contract might get undermined, it might be used against us. Better to clear the room and let the others deal with this and it will blow over and we can get back to our grant proposals and email donation appeals.
You see, my friend who is in a bind about speaking up or not speaking up puts me in a bind too. If I speak up, say, “Well, yes, I know some evidence about the perpetrator, let’s put this out there…” then the mess comes down on me. I get people pointing fingers that I am the problem, I get caught up in the mess, I go through the stress… I can even be retaliated against by being seen as a “difficult person” and the money, the training jobs, the invitations will start to dry up. (I know this can happen because I have seen it happen.) So, now I too am stuck in the bind.
Since being trauma informed and recovery oriented is at the heart of who we are and what we do, it is a complete and total fail that not only do we cover up abuse, but with the cover-up we actually create the conditions to traumatize people and undermine recovery. We put people like my colleague—and now myself—in a traumatizing bind. We want to speak up, but can’t, but must, but can’t… And now we spiral down, into stress or worse. We can even become suicidal, go back to our addictions. Or worse: bury it all, keep the cycle going, and take it out on others.
So, when my colleague contacts me and says “Will, someone I know who is a perpetrator is being invited to a project I am part of, what should I do?” I have to ask you, our movement. What should we do?
What should we do?
As I write this, my mom’s home town Kansas City just won the Superbowl after 50 years of trying and a million people are going acceptable-crazy, celebrating in below-freezing weather. A democratic socialist just won the opening election of the campaign season in the richest country on earth and has a real shot at the presidency after working for real change his whole life. A generation of vocal #metoo internet-savvy young people is pushing the old guard aside, breathing honesty and outspokenness into our political culture. As humbling as it is for some folks to realize, a lot of the #metoo shift is simply a generational blindspot. Younger people are now finally taking center stage, and—thankfully—they are not going along with the corrupt world their elders think is “just how it is, everybody does it.” The standards are now different—and better. It seems a lot is possible.
Would it be possible for our movement to create some places for mediation, for whistleblowers, for conflict resolution, for ethics complaints, for restorative and transformative justice? Would it be possible for those who are raking in money and cashing contract checks to put some of that money into getting our own act together? Would it be possible for our movement to start fixing the problems in our own organizations rather than just righteously demanding pharma and psychiatry fix theirs?
Would it be possible for our organizations to stop putting people like my colleague, and people like me, in binds that drive us crazy?
Kansas City’s fans didn’t give up, or turn off the TV when their team was down by 10 with just eight minutes remaining in the game. Bernie Sanders’ supporters didn’t stop donating and phoning and knocking on doors when Bernie was at the bottom of the polls. And most importantly, the survivors we celebrate who are making it through their recovery didn’t give up when psychiatry told them they’d be sick for the rest of their lives.
I’m not going to give up. And you shouldn’t either. Our movement needs to address its corruption problem.
So, what should we do?