What working at BlackBerry Taught me about the Mental Health System.
Warning, blunt words ahead! Before I continue (and get yelled at) almost every service available does something right and a bunch of things not so great. Even services close to my heart do this. I have hope that we are moving in the right direction, but I thought this story would really help light a fire under the butts of some folks (and get nods and smiles from others).
The TL:DR of this post, is always keep improving, listening and getting better.
I have spent the last ten years or so trying to figure out who I am. That is the most evident in my career, having spent time working at big tech companies (opentext, BlackBerry and more), start up tech companies, in research labs (I am a published researcher, which is weird considering I can’t spell most words right), working with the military, working with a weather man to publish a funny weather stories calendar, circus performer, and many other equally random things. I am not completely sure what I want to do when I grow up (still waiting on that by the way), but I know that I want to create a world where the suicide rate goes down instead of up, and more people are spending birthdays laughing at bars/homes than crying at tombstones.
I choose to do that through trying to make the mental health system work, which sometimes feels like trying to feed veggies to children. My random journey through life so far has taught me a lot about how to change the mental health system, and I keep learning every day. One of the biggest lessons I have learned was while working at blackberry, as it was starting to fail.
It was in 2011, and I was working as a usability tester in Waterloo, Ontario. I was one of three girls on my floor and the only one working a somewhat technical job. The folks I worked with were pretty great (smart, funny, and really good at what they did). However, working there wasn’t very fun as the morale was low. The first set of huge layoffs had just happened and everyone was feeling uncertain about their future. It was clear that the company was undergoing transition. But when your company is so big that it owns 26 buildings in a small area, it’s hard to think that it will ever truly fail. The idea that BlackBerry was too big to fail was a common one. They would pick themselves up and be a true competitor again.
This obviously has not happened. Most of those 26 buildings had been sold (there are University of Waterloo classes happening where I once worked) and the company has struggled to come back from its losses. From my limited perspective, one of the reasons this happened is that they did not listen to their users. Users would give us feedback at BlackBerry on how to improve, and it would be met with excuses on why we couldn’t do that. By not listening, a huge space was left for someone to come in and sweep our users away. That happened (hey Apple and Android), and it sucked. A lot of good people lost their jobs with limited warning. The Waterloo region was hit hard (but has since come back stronger than ever). Luckily for me, I had gone back to school and made the decision that I would want to probably stay away from big business for a while.
I started working in the mental health space in 2012 and have been here ever since. Over the years I started to get a serious feeling of deja vu. People using services would reach out and let folks know how to improve the services. They would offer to help us be better (often times for free). And while a lot of folks say they are listening, as an insider I know we are not really listening. In the places that we are listening, we are listening to one or two users. The users that have opinions that we agreed with. In a lot of ways, it feels like BlackBerry before the crash. Amazing feedback, direction, and support is being offered but is often met with excuses.
Our users, clients, friends come to us in mental health services because we are the only choice that sort of meets their needs. They engage with programs because they are the best of the bad. We often think that the mental health system is too big and connected to ever truly crash and burn (or to change for that matter). I don’t think it is. The more we ignore our users, the more we make decisions that disregard their wants and needs, the more we are inviting people to just give up on us and create something better that doesn’t include us. Right now, our users (people with lived experience) want to work with us to make it better. If we keep ignoring their feedback and making excuses, that won’t last forever. Something will come along that people will love better. And our programs and jobs will be gone, crushed under the weight of our own unwillingness to change.
We talk a lot about engaging users in program creation as the right thing to do. And it is. But it’s also about job protection. Because when new options come, we need to make sure the users will choose us. Because at the end of the day, our users want one thing: To feel less shitty and to go on with their lives. How that happens and who makes that happen doesn’t always matter as much as we think it does.
We need to keep improving, listening, and being better. It’s not enough just to be the best of bad. We need to be actually good. Making hard choices that result in better and more effective services. We need to be always thinking that someday there might be someone who learns from our mistakes, and if we want to survive, we need to learn from our users and our clients before they do, and before they do it better than we did.