Caring for Self and Others

Consumer Board and Committee Participation

Deborah MacNamara

Reprinted from "Self-Management" issue of Visions Journal, 2003, 1 (18), pp. 13-14

Consumer representation and participation on boards and committees has been an important step in improving the mental health system. A research study aimed at understanding consumers’ experiences on boards and committees highlighted important issues in relation to self-care and participation. The study included consumers who were active members of boards and committees in the mental health field in British Columbia for at least a one-year period. The consumers became involved with boards and committees due to a desire to make the mental health system better for other consumers. One person said, “If I can help one person to keep from experiencing what I experience, it makes it all worth it.” Overall, board and committee membership posed a number of challenges and benefits in relation to self-care.

Consumers stated the main reason they were asked to participate on boards and committees was to use their firsthand knowledge of the mental health system to inform policy and practice. Consequently, in meetings they would sometimes share personal experiences, which could be painful and distressing. The consumers were strongly attached to their views of the mental health system but these views were not always recognized or validated by other committee members. Consultation did not mean agreement, which was stressful given the personal investment of the consumers.

The majority of consumers interviewed reported a high degree of stress and frustration due to relationships with other board members and the board process in general. One consumer said, “It takes a lot of energy, a lot of analytical sort of energy to be doing board work, and a lot of political sort of things ... It’s really an unusual kind of stress.” Some consumers reported feeling burned out, that they were mentally and emotionally exhausted because they were spread too thin due to a shortage of consumers who were willing to participate on boards and committees. At times, they felt disempowered, isolated, and responsible for speaking on behalf of all consumers. This responsibility increased the pressure they felt to perform: “I just think it feels more uncomfortable when you’re a consumer because you feel the weight of all these people who need help, who need assistance like that. I don’t want to act as some kind of interpreter.”

Sometimes consumers were intimidated given the power differential they experienced with non-consumers on their board or committee. “It’s not only not equal, it’s slanted and it’s threatening and very ominous at one end, and that’s the end the consumers are playing at.” Differences in power often translated into differences in recognition and status. Furthermore, membership on boards and committees sometimes placed the consumer in a conflict of interest in relation to his or her own mental health care. They were sometimes in the position of receiving services from the agency of which they were a board member, forcing them to make alternative arrangements for their mental health care.

Despite a number of challenges posed to self-care, the consumers stated board and committee membership also brought numerous benefits. Through their board or committee, consumers often learned of mental health services and resources that could benefit them directly. They also developed friendships, felt empowered, experienced greater self-esteem and confidence, which all served to enhance one’s self-care. One consumer said participating on boards and committees, “changed my attitude, my whole self concept, this board…I was always ashamed of my disease, very ashamed and kind of paranoid, almost to the point of hysteria…of people finding out that I was a mental patient.”

Good self-care according to consumers meant finding a balance between taking care of themselves and their responsibilities as board and committee members. Having a strong support network of friends and family helped them cope with the stress and pressure. In order to survive mentally and emotionally, some of the consumers changed the expectations they had of themselves in relation to their board and committee work. One person said, “certainly since I’ve started, my definition of what could be accomplished has changed you know, I feel that I had to really change my expectations to survive… because, or else I would have just exploded with frustration I think.”

Like any job, board and committee membership requires attention to self-care and managing one’s stress and workload. The irony of board and committee membership is that in the process of trying to take care of other consumers and make a difference, consumers face increased challenges to their own self-care. Given the importance of consumer participation on boards and committees there is merit for consumers and nonconsumers to consider how to better support participants with these challenges.

About the author

Deborah is a counsellor at Kwantlen University College and assists students with career, academic, and personal issues. She is currently completing a doctorate in Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of British Columbia