Advocacy: Stress and Success

by Jay Gilpatrick


Right from the beginning, when I started to get involved with the mental health system, I experienced stress over the controversies.  At a self-help group the controversy was over whether it should be a 12-step program or free flow discussion.  At the social club, I was concerned if it was something I said or did that caused someone to go back into the hospital.  It wasn’t, but I was so insecure and had little confidence in myself at all.  I had been afraid of other people most of my life.  I was a loner who didn’t want to be a loner.

Even today I need to be around people to feel O.K. 

One of the first things I did was to run for election as president at the Elmwood clubhouse.  I took it very seriously.  I campaigned for the position.  The voting took place over two weeks and I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown the whole time.  I won but then there was an irregularity in the ballots and there had to be a revote.  I had a psychotic break for about two seconds.  I persevered and won.  I tend to try to keep my paranoia to myself.  Those were important days at the Elmwood Clubhouse.  The first controversy was over whether all members should have a vote or should just those who can speak-up have their voices heard.

The issue played out in the first member meeting.  The management of Restoration Society wanted just those who could speak up to vote calling it consensus. There was a loud argument on the floor.  One member in particular was the lead advocate for consensus in the member meeting.  I got extremely angry and lost my temper.  I brought the issue to a vote and the members voted that everyone should have a vote.  That is how members got the vote.

Another major issue that arose was Work Ordered Day (WOD).  This was to be a program where members could train at the clubhouse for a temporary employment position.  The agency wanted the WOD to be an all day program.   I successfully argued that the program should be a half day since it was a new program and no jobs were available yet.  The stressful part was standing up in front of everyone and speaking.

As time went by I realized that I had a very difficult time with public speaking unless I had it written out word by word in advance.

I applied for a job at Restoration Society. I thought as a very active member I would get the job.  I had the interviews and someone else got the job.  I was very upset.  I never applied for a job there again.  I have to be careful that I don’t take a job where I wouldn’t get along with the boss. 

After some time went by, I received a letter from a consumer agency where I was invited to interview for a position on the board of directors.  At first I thought someone was trying to get even with me for something, I knew not what.  My counselor at the time told me I should go forward to the interview to learn how to handle that type of situation.  I was voted onto the board.  I joined the nominating committee and as it turned out, I was elected the treasurer.

At an executive committee meeting it was brought up to fire the executive director.  We did.  I didn’t know it then, but found myself in a very controversial position where the agency nearly ceased to exist and there were many hurt feelings, myself included.  When I couldn’t tolerate the situation anymore, I asked for a leave of absence.  A friend of mine later told me it was announced that I resigned.  I never found out what the truth was.

Some months ago I wrote a letter to the editor of The Buffalo News.  It was about a man who had a mental illness and died in a struggle with deputies at the county jail.  I wrote that he should have been in the hospital.  I watched the column and about two weeks later it was published.  I felt pleased.  It was posted at the clubhouse and I was given credit for improving the situation in a council meeting.

In conclusion, I encourage others to get involved in advocacy.  There are many agencies where individuals can get involved. One can also get involved in writing legislators about their viewpoints of legislative issues.  Sometimes just one voice can make a difference in the work of advocacy.  If there is stress, work through it.  It can be a way to learn and recover.  It can be rewarding.  It doesn’t have to be as controversial as I am.