Pressed by Advocate, CIGNA Responds To Not Including A Peer On Panel. Washington Post Doesn’t

(6-23-18) I recently took my former employer, The Washington Post, to task for not including someone who’d recovered from a mental illness on a recent blue ribbon panel discussion about the status of mental health care in America. AJ French had asked the Post and its co-sponsor, Cigna  to include a representative so all sides could be heard. The Post hasn’t responded, but Cigna did. 

A conversation is a start. By AJ French. 

Sometimes I wrestle with how to go about effectively communicating in a way that will bring about necessary change when every reason exists to become morally outraged by injustice.

This happened again when I learned The Washington Post discriminated against featuring subject matter experts who are leaders in the mental health recovery movement.

Readers who faithfully follow Pete Earley, know that the Washington Post Live staff ignored my communication about inclusion. I am pleased to report that Cigna did not. A representative from their organization called and apologized to me within twenty-four hours.

An apology was an appropriate response, but I also appreciated our subsequent conversation.

The Cigna spokeswoman informed me that she received my email communication on 9:15 am just as the beginning of the event was underway. Knowing the email to Cigna had been sent the night before the event in a final attempt to garner representation, this was a plausible explanation.

Although people with psychiatric disabilities were sidelined once again, I had some sympathy.

If the Post had just responded to a plea for equality, Cigna would not have been put in this unfortunate position and Elinor Polack would not be on the phone apologizing to me.

Polack said that bringing in the patient perspective is critical and something Cigna wants to accelerate. It sounded good, but experience has taught me that speaking in general terms seldom leads to specific outcomes and it’s important for Cigna to take a position on this issue.

We had reached a pivotal moment in our conversation because she needed to hear why this merits a strong response. Simultaneously, she did not know that my ability to communicate was compromised as I was experiencing some sensory challenges and having trouble concentrating.

I started with “this is a fragile, handle with care moment” and she listened as I attempted to depict the extensive historical scope of our grievance.

Recovery leadership is consistently not represented at mental health forums and, no matter how many apologies we receive after the fact, we are repeatedly excluded from major forums and smaller discussions about our lives.

Three times she expressed that the Washington Post was the entity responsible for speaker decisions. Though Cigna may have been blind sighted by the Post, financial sponsors are ultimately responsible for their funding decisions.

Apparently, Cigna does not have an eligibility requirement for funding education forums which stipulates equal representation from individuals who have actually participated in healthcare programs. If they do, it was obviously not applied to the Post Live event.

I asked Polack to discuss what has happened with her team and try to come up with something meaningful to make this right. To her credit, she did commit to having a follow up phone conversation with me stating “as we look into this, we will look to include the patient voice.”

When I told her a little bit about my personal mental health experiences, she said some very kind words to me. It’s a good thing when people are kind, but the recovery community needs more than kindness. We need dignity expressed in tangible ways.

It’s not about who’s to blame. It’s about strong leadership needed to change our culture.

While I’m still awaiting a response from Michael Falcone   at the Post, we are also awaiting a response from so many of you who are reading this blog. Here’s a short list of policies and practices needed for dignity, inclusion and integration.

  • If you’re planning a mental health event, make sure your planning team invites subject matter experts who are recognized leaders by the recovery movement as guest speakers. Individuals who disclose their mental health recovery experiences should be represented in equal proportion to other represented stakeholders.
  • If you’re endorsing a mental health event (with financial or promotional or other kinds of support), make sure you receive definitive answers about equal representation prior to sharing your resources. You can support our liberation or you can support our oppression. How you spend time and money communicates volumes about your values.
  • If you’re asked to speak at a mental health event and you are not a person in recovery, be sure to ask “How many persons with disclosed recovery experience are also invited to speak?”  Mental health leaders should refuse to participate in events without representation from the recovery community. This is the difference between a leader and someone who becomes complicit.
  • If you’re on a mental health board (or advisory council, task force, work group, etc), be sure to elect and appoint qualified individuals (plural) who have disclosed their mental health experiences.  For this to be meaningful, there needs to be more than one token representative.
  • If you’re a member of the media, be sure to interview knowledgeable local folks who openly identify as having mental health challenges and who will effectively represent the interests of the recovery community.  Do not limit your reporting to family and provider perspectives.  Your attention to this detail reflects your level of professionalism.
  • If you do make a mistake and overlook one of these areas, be quick to make it right.  Become the superstar that fiercely advocates for equal representation within your sphere of influence.  Gift a consumer-operated organization grant money for a specific project or privilege.  Say you’re sorry, but follow that apology with a peace offering.    

This is what A Call For Dignity is all about.

(I know many parents have had difficult encounters with peers, as have I. But I have felt and continue to believe their voices must be heard too. Parents, providers and peers working together should be our norm. Every voice is important.)

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.