My former girl friend had a favorite saying, wherever you go, there your are. The saying stuck with me long after our relationship had ended and I found that it came from a book. Gee, wiz, who knew Google had existed since 1941?
When I got to almost any place related to mental health, I meet someone who knows me and may have been a co-worker or a person who I assisted. I had an experience like that earlier this week. I was not looking to meet people, I was there as a helper.
And yet, there I was. If you venture into the community, you meet people who have different memories of you. Some of these people may despise you. Deal with it. Maybe you were an asshole. Deal with it. The truth is, every time you venture out is a chance for something completely different. So put on whatever makes you feel good, fits your sense of style and be prepared to be amazed.
Because, like they say, wherever you go…
There is a large employer in Milwaukee County that contracts to run the Crisis Resource Center and several apartment programs called TLS: Transitional Living Services. I was part of the crew that opened the Crisis Resource Center under a peer services contract with Our Space, Inc. and it was a horrible way to make a living. The clinical staff whined the second that peer support appeared to exercise any independent judgment. I felt like what they wanted was people who would become expert at washing dishes. Actually, one woman who thrived in the system was a woman who became very anal about her dish washing. How does this fit any model of peer support?
Peer support is an evidenced based practice that shows people who are experiencing mental health issues respond positively to workers who had similar experiences. I worked along others like me who had college degrees. When I left Our Space, I was barely making $9 per hour. And I had to demand the increase that got me to that level.
How does that value me as an important member of a recovery team? Recently the Milwaukee County Board passed a Living Wage Ordinance that requires county contracted agencies to pay at least 100% above the federal poverty limit. That would be more than $11 per hour. I was told that TLS is paying peer support $(9 per hour. So, they’re paying a wage that I struggled to survive on more than 2 years ago and more than $2 below the Living Wage Law requirement.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has been focusing on the problems plaguing the Milwaukee County mental health system and a good place to start would be wages. What are the wages paid in the hospital compared to the wages in the community?Is it fair to create a community based system on the backs of low wage peer support workers? These kinds of wages will leave to evictions, utility disconnections and even worse. Peer support workers are caught in the bind that is social security disability. Some peer support workers struggled to get approved for disability and fear they will be cut off prematurely. Making work pay a decent wage would give people a true incentive to return to employment and work themselves off disability benefits.
National Alliance on Mental Illness NAMI, Greater Milwaukee pays $12 per hour for peer workers, many of whom left positions with agencies like Our Space. In evaluating agency bids for services, Milwaukee County needs to begin looking at wages of different positions to see what kind of livelihoods the people on the front lines of mental health will be enjoying as they perform these jobs.