NHCW 2016: Giving Consumers A Voice

Monday, August 08, 2016

While Samm McCrary wasn’t entirely sure what to expect at her very first Central City Concern Health Services Advisory Council (HSAC) meeting, the last thing she expected was to arrive at the same time as her former clinical supervisor, who was now working for CCC. For Samm, this chance meeting wasn’t just a reminder of her past—it was a preview of the opportunity and voice HSAC would afford her.

• • •

Until 2008, Samm was living in a comfortable home and doing what she loved as an alcohol and drug counselor. But she began experiencing major mental health crises. Suddenly, she found herself without a job and without a home, living on the street. “I felt invisible to most of society,” Samm remembers.

With the help of local agencies, Samm was able to access permanent housing. Soon after, she became a patient at the Old Town Clinic, engaging in primary care, acupuncture, art therapy, and occupational therapy. There, she found community, which “nourished both my body and soul.”

Three years ago, her neighbor—also an Old Town Clinic patient—invited Samm to check out CCC’s Health Services Advisory Council.

“She basically said that the council was like a liaison for our peer patients to the CCC administration. We could share praises and concerns.”

What Samm found was a group of people engaged in CCC’s health and addiction recovery services—the majority of whom were homeless or recently homeless, diverse in ways that reflected the patient population—that had been meeting in various iterations since 2003. 

“Their purpose is to advise CCC Health and Recovery Services about client needs and ways to improve delivery of health care services,” says E.V. Armitage, who has provided invaluable administrative staff support since 2008. “HSAC is a great mechanism to give consumers a way to provide input into the agency's growing array of health services.”

Now with several years of HSAC service under her belt, Samm’s been able to identify the common thread found among all members of the council. “These people have integrity and they want to make positive change. Everyone on HSAC has a spark like that,” she says. “They’re all service-oriented and want to lend their voice to others.”

Samm recalls a time toward the beginning of her council membership when she was still hesitant to share anything that could be perceived as a complaint, but chose to go ahead and share a concern that a fellow patient had brought to her. What Samm shared on behalf of her peer was a problem CCC Health Services wasn’t even aware of that could have affected many other patients. But thanks to the opportunity to speak up, CCC took action, identified the source of the problem, and remedied it immediately.

“I learn something new every time I go to a meeting,” says Chief Clinical Operations Officer Leslie Tallyn, who attends all monthly meetings. “HSAC members hold us accountable—they illuminate areas where we can and should do better, and they also recognize where we’re doing well.”

And while HSAC’s benefit to CCC is built into the purpose of the council, Samm is clear that the benefit travels in both directions.

“It’s immense that they actually listen. I’m someone who dropped out of high school and went to college when I was 34. I waited tables for 15 years. And yet they hear me and take me seriously.”

Samm pauses and breathes deeply before she continues, as if she’s collecting and revisiting the experiences of the last several years. “A thing about being diagnosed with a mental health condition is that there becomes a sense of powerlessness; it’s like you no longer have any credibility. If anything goes wrong in your life, it’s perceived as being because of your mental health. Having a voice with your peers and with the administration who will listen is really meaningful.”

Which brings Samm back to her first HSAC meeting when she ran into her former clinical supervisor. Samm had worked hard to rebuild her life after losing her career as a counselor (ironically, “a profession where once I said something, it was accepted!”) and the roof over her head. She had felt powerless, invisible, unheard. But here she was, in a meeting where her word counted for just as much as those of her former supervisor.

“To have a voice that people will listen to and actually take you seriously is a healing thing,” Samm explains. “Peer patients who have a problem feel heard when they share them with us because they know we’ll bring it to the council. They see action from the administration. I think people get how powerful that is.”

Samm’s thankful to be a part of HSAC because it gives her a chance to share the voice she’s found with others.

“They might be discounted in other parts of their lives. Not here.”

• • •

Visit These Profiles of Innovation at Central City Concern!