What is peer advocacy? This question was posed to a group of peer advocates working for NYWRAC (New York, Westchester, Rockland Advocacy Coalition, part of The Empowerment Center) at their weekly peer-support staff meeting. It was held in building 31, an old psychiatric-nurse dormitory on the campus of Rockland Psychiatric Center. The Peer Advocates shouted out their ideas. Their topics transformed into a definition of peer advocacy.
As part of the definition, the advocates described the process of becoming a Peer Advocate. Advocates stated during their training that they initially felt an inability to live their chosen life because of their mental illnesses. Their mental illnesses were the things that defined who they were and what they couldn’t be. Many of them had been taught that they were their mental illnesses and that they could not escape them.
They described their past as an extremely different and difficult place. Their difficulties were compounded by not being listened to nor understood. In the process of seeking help, the advocates described losing their autonomy and being over controlled. They told one another that they had been discounted, labeled, stigmatized, dehumanized, and hospitalized. The information and education presented during Peer Advocacy Training led people to express a newly found sense of who they were and what they wanted. The advocacy training created a feeling of hope, independence and purposefulness. They saw themselves as people who could inspire and effect change in themselves and others.
As the training progressed, they felt counted, delivered, and liberated from their labels of mental illness. These people became aware that what were once called symptoms of an illness were real responses to real situations. Their eyes were opened to view their own experiences as valued expertise, rather than as horrible symptoms. They came to understand how to use their testimony to communicate and empathize with others. This is how they became Peer Advocates.
As Peer Advocates they respect individuality and see all people as valued human beings. They believe in freedom and choices. As pioneers in a new system, they see themselves as change agents to educate, inform, and prevent abuse. Through love and humility they are a consoling light that empathizes, comforts, and brings hope to others. They open a new life to their peers while being good listeners, communicators and teachers. Though others have called them role models and revolutionaries, advocates view themselves simply as part of a supportive network working for the expressed interest of their peers.
Indirectly, through their behavior, they have changed the system. They are the evidence of an evidence-based practice. They are living recovery. They see themselves as explorers of new life.
The NYWRAC advocates have redefined the mental-health profession by acknowledging that each person knows themselves better than anyone, as opposed to others knowing what’s best for them. Our primary job is to make contact with our peers in the hospital and community, listen to their expressed needs, and validate those needs through advocacy and support. The peer advocacy we do fosters increased autonomy, self-reliance and improved self-worth.
NYWRAC’s mission is to provide peer support and defend people’s rights through one-to-one and systems advocacy. NYWRAC advocates also facilitate over 20 mutual-support groups each week.
Now more than ever, people have been helped to overcome the obstacles associated with poor mental-health services through programs such as NYWRAC. No longer is it necessary for people to endure unjustified or illegal confinement or other abuses of their civil rights simply because they have sought help or drawn attention to themselves.
Each year NYWRAC serves thousands of attendees at mutual-support groups and provides one-to-one personal support with hundreds of individuals. Advocates have used their personal testimony to open the minds and hearts of provider agencies, hospitals, community schools, police forces and newspapers, all for the benefit of our peers.
Since 1994, NYWRAC has trained over 200 people as peer advocates. NYWRAC serves people from New York City, Westchester County and Rockland County at Rockland Psychiatric Center. In the past three years, advocates have been placed at The Westchester Medical Center, Mt. Vernon Hospital and New York United Medical Center. Our newest hospital additions are St. Vincent’s Medical Center, St. Joseph’s Medical Center and Summit Park Hospital.
In addition to being in the hospitals, NYWRAC advocates are available to people living in the Westchester and Rockland communities. Contact an advocate at 1-877-HELP-800.
Elaine Levin, Associate Executive Director, The Empowerment Center
James Rye, Executive Director, The Empowerment Center
Eva Scholle, Board Member & Co-founder, The Empowerment Center