A Compeer conference that starts today in Lawrence will examine diversity and cultural issues in relation to people with mental illness.
Suzie Taylor sees how the world looks at the mentally ill.
"When you're a patient, everyone treats you as the problem," Taylor said.
Taylor, who works with the Compeer program at Lawrence's Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, must often confront those views. She likens the bias against the mentally ill to other types of prejudice, such as racial discrimination.
This week's Compeer Regional Conference, being held today and Thursday in Lawrence, will discuss many of those problems. Compeer is a nationwide program that pairs mentally ill people with community volunteers.
The relationships are not meant to be clinical. The program is based on the idea that mentally ill people need more than just doctors and treatment, Taylor said. They need friends.
Taylor believes participants in the local program offer examples of its benefits.
Elizabeth is one Bert Nash patient who has benefited greatly from having a peer, friend and equal. When Elizabeth -- because of Compeer's confidentiality policy, last names are not used -- first came to Bert Nash, she was often hospitalized. She suffered from hallucinations and had been misdiagnosed several times. She got on a Compeer waiting list, although she was pessimistic she would ever be paired with anyone. But just over a year later, she met her volunteer match.
It's now been more than four years since Elizabeth was last in the hospital. Compeer volunteers are only required to meet once a week, but Elizabeth and her friend meet more often than that. They shop, go out to eat and go for walks.
"It makes me feel like if I get real out there, I can call her up and she's real calming," Elizabeth said. "She makes me laugh."
Allen Perrin sees Compeer from the other side. Six months ago, he began volunteering. Now he meets once a week with three different Bert Nash patients.
"It's a lot more fun than I thought it would be," he said of the experience. It's rewarding, he said, because his new friends appreciate small gestures -- often they just look for someone who will listen without judging or stereotyping.
"They get to say what they want to say, ask what they want to ask," Perrin said. "It's easy to have fun vicariously."
At the conference, Compeer workers will discuss stigmas that the mentally ill face in society. That is where the comparisons of mental illness and race come into play.
"It's a real reasonable bridge -- using a different perspective as a way of understanding stigma," Dr. Yo Jackson said. Jackson, a KU clinical psychologist, will deliver the conference's largest presentation, a six-hour discourse titled "Diversity Issues and Cultural Competency."
-- Erik Petersen's phone message number is 832-7144. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.