Psychiatric Survivors In Business

Many psychiatric survivors have created a gift economy of sorts in offering peer support, and this is by no means to criticize those offering their best guidance freely to those who desperately need it. In fact, the gift economy saved my life when it was threatened by psychiatric drugs. Most of us who have come off psychiatric pharmaceuticals relied on the generosity of other survivors who were operating in the gift. The more conventional economy alternative health systems sometime fail us and freely given peer support gives us something to be a part of, where we can give back right away, without any barriers to entry, financial or otherwise.

Yet, my entrepreneurial spirit, as chaotic and unsophisticated as it has been at times, has played a huge role in saving me from being a chronic mental patient with a chronic identity of “sick” or “failure” or “other”. I still feel the weight of all three of these words at times, but my persistence in redefining myself and reassigning value to what I offer others has allowed me to give the most back and escape psychiatry.

Please read the article, “Why You Should NOT Work in the Gift Economy” by Mirror Living, a yoga teacher, healer and gift economist. This article discusses the pitfalls of the gift economy for some, while also giving tips on how to incorporate gifting.

As a kid, I started my first entrepreneurial venture in fourth grade, selling handmade paper fans on the street with my friends. We hand colored regular paper with crayons in a checkered design, folded them into fans and stood out on the street offering them for a small amount of change, 10 cents, a quarter. When business got slow, I went to the corner store and bought a pack of gum to create a new deal, “Buy a fan get a free stick of gum!” For 10 cents, a 5 cent piece of gum and a paper fan that took about a half hour to make by a child, was in fact a great deal!

I wasn’t selling these fans for pocket change, or even for something to do with my friends. I was selling them because I wanted to be somehow part of the flow of the economy; I wanted an adult with a pocketbook to value my “art” and pay me for it, in the currency they consider valuable. And a few did in fact buy our fans.

I bring this up because many psychiatric survivors may receive government funding or have a job in the system or get money from their family and not necessarily need to sell their art or services to sustain themselves (though let’s face it, most are living in extreme poverty, and a higher income would make a huge difference in quality of life and “recovery” from trauma, abuse and psychiatric warfare). In either case, for most of us, there is a need to have our offerings valued by society, even if it starts out in very small ways. For people who work within the system, or elsewhere, at a J. O. B., great, I just happen to be more excited about the emergence of PSEs, Psychiatric Survivor Entrepreneurs.

Like many undervalued and oppressed groups such as women, immigrants, people of color, and differently abled people of all kinds, as psychiatric survivors we tend to downplay our offerings and have trouble expressing our worth in standard societal terms. After all, we were told that we not only didn’t have value, but were a burden on the mainstream as our talents expressed themselves in sensitivity, extreme feelings and “anti-social” behaviors others didn’t like or considered bizarre.

The same is true for many creative entrepreneurs, even the most successful ones, especially the most successful ones. It’s an age old truth that our genius lies in our madness; I have met some of the smartest people, the wisest prophets and the greatest healers in my work with psychiatric survivors over the years. Many of these people are fairly unknown and undiscovered. The question is not whether we have value to contribute to society, though of course many stay stuck internalizing the psychiatric oppression that they don’t for many years, or even their entire lives for those who over-identify as chronically mentally ill.

It breaks my heart to see so many in our community living in dire poverty, even those who clearly have copious amounts of value for others. I have seen this class/status/social standing piece divide the activist movement: those who have moved out of oppressive systems to a large degree, “above,” and those for whom financial insecurity and lack contributes to depression, anxiety and despair, “below”.

Psychiatric survivors who know they have important things to share with the world, in any capacity, need to GO FOR IT; participate in the mainstream economy and offer your gifts for a good amount. It may take awhile to transition off of SSI and food stamps, but I believe that is a good goal for those who aspire to it. My own transition was scary and at times overwhelming; I had days I was wrought with despair that I had so little money and financial security. It angered me from a very deep place that as a woman, “mad person”, healer, intuitive, visionary, writer and artist, I was caught in a negative feedback loop of feeling unworthy, unappreciated and stuck hiding what I could give because it scared me so much to be seen. There are many millions of people out there like me who have been labeled useless by society, who have so much value for all of us.

Before that I also used government money as a “salary,” though small, to support others in withdrawal, and for those doing the same, great, AND I’d like to see you making more money, being more integrated into “success culture,” to fully and thoroughly leave behind the outcast identity.

The current economic system is not a great one, most of us can agree to that, but it is the one we have at the moment and as people labeled “mad”, one of the best ways to integrate our vision into mainstream culture is to have them pay us for it. Because it isn’t really about us and them; there’s never been a certain group of crazy people and other normal people who are functioning better. This is a myth that is held in place by financial inequality. As people are valued financially and socially, the “crazy” identity no longer holds them down, and they are then able to give back to those most in need of the innovative ideas and ways that made them crazy in the first place (the genius in their madness).

The good news is you can move from “crazy weirdo living on the fringes” to valued visionary who connects the dots for others, bringing them relief, peace, joy, inspiration and magic, all of the things we humans value the most. I look forward to seeing a new category of consultants, coaches and healers emerge from the psychiatric survivor pool, who learn to offer their gifts in the mainstream economy, for an amount they can live well on, because we will be some of the most important game changers out there. We also have latent business skills many haven’t discovered yet being trapped in “peer roles” for so long.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the peer support model. I love friendship, community and free giving and receiving from fellow humans, but I think many of us are too good at that, at the expense of our own health and thriving, and at the expense of making a larger difference in the world by being more visible in the standard mainstream economy. We do need money, the great majority of us, especially to heal from psychiatric abuse, and I’m excited to see us step into professional roles where we are visible to more people.

Being visible can be terrifying. Saying I am charging money for something that challenges the pharmaceutical industry can make me feel not only vulnerable to criticism and ridicule, but scared for my life. I got this comment on reddit yesterday: Dude she is an anti-med herb healer whose endorsed by an esthetician with some kind of PhD. If you want some non-med ways to fight psychosis there are some good ones by science professors with schizophrenia,” (and wanted to correct their grammar-it’s who’s not whose).

The witch hunt still exists as a consciousness within most of us. Offering healing and guidance that isn’t backed yet by corporate “science” is scary; we have been killed for it, we could easily be ostracized for redefining science, for snatching it back as what it originally meant, from the Latin, scire and then scientia: to know, assurance of knowledge, certitude, certainty. Not to guess and present hypothesis as fact, but to know. I’ve always felt an affinity with the word science, and hurt by how it is misused, because what do we know? We know what we know, knowledge is mystical and mysterious more than it is based on measurable phenomenon. Perhaps we don’t truly know anything and “science” is a moving target that each person must define for themselves, in each moment, incorporating every part of reality they have access to, including the intuitive and ineffable. Science incorporates a lot more feeling and sensing than “modern science” would like to allow for, and it’s this type of knowing that has helped me most as a psychiatric survivor, entrepreneur and business owner.

If you are a psychiatric survivor, please share what has and hasn’t worked for you in creating a reality that is healthy for you while also giving your best to those who will benefit. We can all learn from each other and support each other in the gift, when it feels right, while also sustaining and celebrating ourselves by charging for our services in the regular old economy, the one we need to live in right now to spread our message of hope to the billions who need it.

You’re invited to join the Facebook group Psychiatric Survivor Entrepreneurs for a mutually supportive environment and to discuss these topics, and who knows, maybe even meet a business partner or get an idea.



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4 thoughts on “Psychiatric Survivors In Business

  1. Don Karp says:

    Wonderful article, Chaya! Since it took me almost 40 years after my last hospitalization to engage in helping those with similar problems, I am intrigued to learn how others have made the leap from survivor to helper.

    Perhaps, as an encore article, you might discuss the mainstreaming and corporatization of the peer support and other alternatives that co-opt the movement.

    At the Alternatives Conference in Boston last August, I attended a workshop entitled: “Organizing Community across Intersecting Social Identities.” There were three workshop leaders. One of them brought her group with her. Another apologized for not arranging the chairs in a circle. It turned out, they represented a company of peer specialists. He spoke of offering leadership trainings. I challenged him suggesting that he and his other two leaders come and sit with us–that we didn’t need leaders.

    At a very high price, one can take a long and detailed course, and then be “certified” as a peer specialist. To me another label.

    What do you think?

  2. Chaya says:

    Thanks Don! I appreciate your reading this and your feedback. The peer counseling programs used to be free ( I think the local ones might still be free in some places). Now with the national certification it is a much higher price. There is certainly a lot of controversy around this, which has been discussed and debated extensively on Mad In America. Sera Davidow wrote a piece about this.

    As for myself I am currently preferring to work outside the system and set my own rates etc. I see merit in both ways of working, but find that working within the system doesn’t quite resonate for me at this time.

    Thanks again!

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