I was actually asked to speak at a NAMI meeting recently. I couldn’t do it because I had a class. It would have been a scream to read this essay at one of their meetings.
I can’t help but conclude that the person who invented the term “consumers” was some do-gooder parent who couldn’t stand hearing their kid being called a “mental patient.” No, it wasn’t the kid who minded being labeled a mental patient, but the parents who, in their shame, had to invent another word for what we really are.
Think: “Consumer” means nothing. It means Consumer Price Index or Consumer Reports. A consumer protected by Ralph Nader. A consumer buys a car, a computer, carpeting, or coffee.
Do we call cancer patients “consumers”? Certainly not. Consumers of what? Cancer care services? Chemo?
Who really does the buying here? The drug companies market to doctors, not to patients. For the most part, we have little choice regarding services; we use what’s covered on our insurance.
Okay, “consumer” implies one who discerns, makes decisions regarding acquiring something. A consumer needs or wants something and chooses what to buy, where to buy it, and by what means. A new TV. Gloves. Chocolate.
We aren’t even the ones doing the buying. We take whatever insurance we can get, from the workplace or from the state or federal governments. Very few patients choose their health care plan; it is decided for them, which means we are not consumers but recipients of health care plans and health care in general.
Some do-gooder parent (or patient in denial) wanted to emphasize the pick-and-choose aspect of mental health care, implying that patients are discerning and proactive. But do we really need to be called “consumers” to prove this?
Truthfully, mental patients, as a subset of patients in general, are the least able to make choices about their care. The looming of “involuntary treatment,” “locked ward,” and “privileges” drive my point home here. Why should we cover up the fact that it is the lack of choices is what defines us? Pink paper. Section 12. Restraints.
There was only one time that I was allowed to make a choice about my care. Due to the unreliability of Medicaid cabs, I had to stop seeing my therapist Dr. Barbara Rosenn, a fine psychologist who helped me immensely. I was given a choice: Dr. Elsa Ronningstam or another therapist whose name I forget. On Barbara’s recommendation, I chose Dr. Ronningstam, one of the biggest treatment mistakes I’ve ever made.
What choices the term “consumer” does not imply are the most important choices a person with a mental illness ever has to make: the choice to seek treatment, the choice to cooperate with treatment, the choice to be willing to heal. The meaning of the term “consumer” doesn’t include this willingness. “Patient,” on the other hand, specifies a person who is a recipient of medical care. “Mental patient” is a person receiving mental health care. Not all mentally ill people are patients; many do not enter treatment, sadly. But people who recognize their illnesses generally are those in treatment or seeking treatment, those that should be proud to be mental patients, those proud enough to shove away the hands of those that pat our heads, beam with token pride, and call us their little “consumers.” God help us.