Helping Milwaukee County Make Decisions

A few years ago the Republican controlled state legislature passed a law taking decision-making authority for mental health away from the elected county supervisors and replaced them with a group of volunteers from the community. The board includes mental health consumers, attorneys, advocates and mental health professionals. There are a lot of big decisions to be made regarding Milwaukee County mental health. The county is moving away from the model of maintaining a large mental health facility which they have been downsizing over the years by closing wards and shifting the people who lived there to community based facilities. Case management, which helps people live in the community, has already been contracted out to various agencies. These agencies help engage with consumers and connect them to services with the aim of reducing their dependence on in patient treatment, which is expensive and often very traumatic.

However, there are no guarantees in this system. We all know people in community programs who died but we can try to reduce the number of preventable deaths. We can ensure that case management provides necessary services. We can increase the number of affordable housing units. We can offer physical and mental health in a coordinated fashion and make certain that people are getting regular check ups. We can have clinics where we would want to be treated. These are very easy steps we can take in our own agencies

But what we do to guide the process of system wide reform? One way is by joining the mental health board. Imagine my surprise when a former co-worker asked me to apply to join the board, which is appointed by the county executive. I will be tossing my hat into the ring tonight to see if I can add my experience to this group. I am excited, interested and curious all at the same time. I will post some more as the process goes along.



How to make black lives matter at a white church?

smiling black girl


I have been noticing that some white churches post signs and organize events that proclaim Black Lives Matter. Today I was at the First Unitarian Society in Milwaukee for the first time in several months and a couple I had seen during my last visit was there. It so happened that the husband is an expert on gang interventions I had heard about many years ago. His wife, who seems to be one of those people who creates a niche for herself wherever she goes, is one of a group within the Unitarian Universalists who are of a social justice ministry. In the church, she is doing Black Lives Matter events and it just so happened that today they had organized a silent witness.


I joined in representing formerly young gifted and black individuals. Most of the responses from passers by were positive. In addition, today’s donations were being shared with an organization that works with inner city youths. This is part of being allies. But how does this sound to you as a reader? How are mostly white organizations and churches witnessing? Do black lives matter to you or are you irritated by the expression? Do you yell back All Lives Matter twice as loudly? Who is it you are attempting to drown out?

Although my job is not specifically to fight racial oppression, African-Americans and other people of color with mental illness are at extremely high risk when they encounter the police. With our help, perhaps they will live longer, more productive lives. Their lives will matter, too.




oung black woman and flowers

I started reading Evicted by Matthew Desmond, about the devastating impact of evictions on poor people in Milwaukee. He has been all over public media being interviewed. The happy face of the young black woman is not the sort that is portrayed in this book. She looks like a woman from the middle class, maybe a social work student .She might have benefits and security from the kind of poverty that is ravaging people in the inner city

I liked her picture so I chose it instead of a depressing picture along the lines of what you will find in eviction court in Milwaukee. There you will find angry people of many different colors with one common thread. Not enough income. They may be people living along Wisconsin Avenue where a former girl friend lived. We were both being evicted from our respective houses. She was a CNA who over worked double shifts and I was a peer specialist.

What we had in common was the horror of no having benefits. Although some white people may also be getting evicted next week, I would bet that 75% of the evictees will be poor and black and many of them are mothers on SSI or CNAs or other low wage workers.

Over the past 9 months, I have been fortunate that only two consumers I was working with have been evicted.  Poor women on SSI. Supplemental security income, SSI, is inadequate. A few of the people we assist have vouchers from programs like My Home, live in supported housing that offers peer support and case management or qualify for senior housing. I am proud that I helped a few people get into those programs. More commonly, our consumers are living in a room and board or a large group home shared with several roommates.

The case managers try to monitor the housing, which helps take up a lot of their work. It can be exhausting to help someone maintain an apartment. There is a person who has a cleaner help take care of the apartment. And I help with grocery shopping. I sometimes have people who are so internally pre-occupied they are barely aware of my presence even when we are out in public. But with some public benefits such as energy assistance and food share, they get by with a little help from their friends.

There was a sad story in Evicted about a consumer being moved out of a building due to poor conditions and then the landlord got a call from a Wraparound case manager about moving a consumer into the same rat trap.  And this landlord was featured in a sickening story about going to a landlord seminar and telling white landlords how she could help them make money in the inner city using her as an intermediary.

I believe that this is far better than my early years as a peer specialist, living with roaches and incredibly underpaid. Far better than feeling angry and wanting to choke consumers who were living in far better surroundings than me. If you have a chance, you should read Evicted  and reflect on the impact of poverty on your life. What is your role in the life of poor people? Are you living in a house with dangerous conditions, without a smoke detector  and with a door that an angry person could kick down on the way to killing you?Do you fear that one of your 6 roommates will harm you? Are you struggling to survive on meager benefits while listening to politicians claiming you are cheating the system?



At the mental health and substance abuse conference, part deux

I am a veterans of these conferences held in Wisconsin Dells and organized for mental health and substance abuse professionals and consumers. The room I am occupying is more like a small conference suite with a bedroom and a meeting area with a full kitchen, There are two TVs:one in the living room and one in the bedroom. This is certainly an upgrade from the room at Chula Vista where I stayed for a Grassroots Empowerment Conference. At the Chula, the rooms were much smaller and there was a roommate.

I was here last year for a conference and did a lot of thing that made my stay a lot less comfortable. But i have learned. I am a veterans. And things are going well. i believe i have recruited the second member of my peer support specialist team at our agency. We will need at least one more person especially to help cope with the increased demand that will be generated by the Comprehensive Community Services.

I have witnessed the power of a strong team of certified peer specialists helping to spur the Our Space, Inc. residential programs that they staff. And I have also seen the peer support staff at La Causa which operates the Community Linkage and Support Program. Our agency will be the only one to fully integrate peer support within a case management program. And that will make us stand out from the others.

I want to see peer support and case management have a happy marriage. maybe even change the whole nature of the relationship between agencies and consumers. i want to see people getting the assistance to which they are entitled. And I want us to help people we are assisting become their own peer specialists. Who thinks this is a good idea?


I have been re-certified as a peer support specialist by the State of Wisconsin. This is a testament to my hard work over the past 2 years. Becoming certified was a major step in my life and brought about all kinds of rewards. It’s the kind of thing you guard very carefully. When you think of where you’re going and what you have accomplished, you have that rock upon which you can build. I have started my second graduate school class in community mental health and psychotherapy but I also owed it to myself to make certain I sent out my re-certification papers with plenty of time to spare.

Today I saw the email response to the papers I had submitted. I’m excited as I take this next step. I seem to be in demand. Also in the email were 5 recently completed policies and procedures by the Recovery Advisory Committee that I sit on which is assisting the implementation of a new Medicaid benefit called community recovery services. And I received an email at work that my presence is required at  the meetings for the new employment program. I had a very productive appointment today with a consumer regarding her employment goals. Things are moving ahead.

It will be good to go home and see my family feeling positive and spreading the news. I know that everyone will be happy for me.



Sometimes, work can make things a lot worse

What I am writing will seem like so much common sense you will wonder why you never considered it. Working for a bad boss can make you sick. On my Facebook page, I recently sad that consumers should never tell their bosses about their mental health status. The reason is that I have seen too many ways in which it can backfire. I see it as one more thing that can be used against you when they decide for whatever reason that you have done something wrong.

I have worked for a lot of terrible bosses. This includes black and white people. One company I worked with in Waukesha was filled with racists who wanted nothing to do with African-Americans. These were people who did everything possible to change the rules to be able show you weren’t living up to their standards. People who talked about not wanting to have you around.

I worked for the of Milwaukee which had a bunch of racist white librarians. Who knows, some of them may still be there. They made it clear they didn’t want me around and ignored or minimized anything positive I had accomplished. In the Waukesha and Milwaukee jobs, I felt miserable. What makes a miserable situation even worse is when the company finally puts the knife in your back because they will twist the terms of your firing to make it seem as though you were the worst employee they ever had. After firing you, they may put you on the work schedule without your knowledge and then claim that because you did not come in, you were a no call, no show.

A former employer did that to me in a shabby attempt to deny me unemployment. Unemployment can be a lifeline for people while they seek out new jobs but increasingly companies claim that their former employees had somehow broken the work rules. One company used two shills to claim I had sworn at work, which was so unprofessional I needed to be terminated. At another agency, two seemingly sweet women business owners fired me for not changing the water bottle and then made up a ridiculous story. Of course, I was awarded my benefits.

I heard of a case in which someone was given an unsigned disciplinary note only to learn from unemployment that the company accused the employee of insubordination that had nothing to do  with what the person had been told. All of this to be able to fuck the former employee out of unemployment.

When you are mistreated, and told people can’t stand you, it hurts your self-esteem. It makes you wonder what you were doing there. It gnaws away at you. When you worry whether unemployment benefits will be there for you, it creates anxiety. It can worsen your mental health.

Be especially wary about the honeymoon period during which you seem to be praised to the sky. No one is really that good but also no one deserves to be walked on or lied to regarding their performance. It’s demeaning and anyone who would act that way should be unemployed to be able to get a taste of their own medicine. Consumers, beware.

Everyone needs to call on their Mr. Spock

Zachary Quinto as Spock in the 2009 Star Trek film
Zachary Quinto as Spock in the 2009 Star Trek film (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


As peer support specialists, we have as our first obligation to control our emotions, to call on that little bit of us that helps keep them in check. You can think back to the Star Trek character Mr. Spock who used his intelligence as his weapon while remaining cool. There are many different people ready to push our buttons and cognitive distortions ready to trip up everyone.


What are some of those distortions? Here I am relying on David Brown and his work on cognitive behavior therapy. Here they are


1. “Should” statements. My supervisor should have told me about  scheduling someone else to work with me first. Wrong. Wrong. And wrong again. The supervisor set your schedule but is not required to inform you of any else’s schedule.


2. Black and white thinking. If people don’t respond to my concerns right away, then they’re obviously against me and I will be fired. Not necessarily, but they may be surprised or even offended if you ask them to put your needs first.


3. Mindreading. I just know that if I screw up again, I’m going to be fired. Did anyone tell you that? If not, why do you think that? And why let it consume you? You may act in a way that causes supervisors to discipline you and hasten your demise.


These are three of the big ones we face. Conflicts exist everywhere in the world, so why not in the work place? Some people will like you, others may dislike you. But so what? You’ve still got a job to do. If your emotions run away with you, they will chase you away from your job and your dreams.