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Why Discrimination Stopped Me From Providing OCD Peer Support

I have been working part-time in my community as a certified peer support specialist for the last 8+ years. I am about to turn 43 years old (ouch) and have been living with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) for 40 years. The most important tool I use to stay in recovery (apart from the love and support of my wife and family) is exposure and response prevention (ERP). This is a difficult treatment for most to embrace, and I have been using it for about the last 20 years.

About three years ago I was denied a truly unique position serving my peers at an OCD intensive outpatient program. I had heard that the program was being restructured, in part, to help folks more effectively prepare to embrace ERP. What a great opportunity to use my experience as someone living with OCD and working as a CPS to serve my own OCD community, I thought. I offered my services to the program, they thought it was a fantastic idea and had a position created. They knew, from before that position was created, that it had been over one year since I had completed that program myself. I had experienced a relapse and enrolled myself into the program. I recovered quickly and returned to my current job. It has now been four years since I have had any treatment from them.

I interviewed successfully and was told over the phone that I was already being considered an asset. About three weeks later, I found out that I would not be hired only because I had briefly spent time in that program with one of the current therapists. (She herself had been present in my interview) There were no concerns about me specifically. Nothing I had done or said. It appears that someone higher up in their management (who had not been present at my interview) had an “ethics consultation” with the National Association of Social Workers. Whoever gave this consultation couldn’t have known me and had nothing to do with the program that wanted to hire me. It seems this consultation created so much fear of hiring me that an effective policy of “no dual relationships” was decided upon. The position went unfilled altogether.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects folks like me from discrimination based on my diagnosis. As there is one program available to me in an entire half of my state, receiving treatment for my OCD effectively shuts me off from being able to use my skills, qualifications and experience to best serve my peers as they approach exposure and response prevention. I have a right to be fairly considered for a job I am well qualified for. My relationship with that program had ended over a year before that job interview. There is no dual relationship existing. I contacted the ADA representative website and was informed that an effective policy of “no dual relationships” can indeed be seen as discriminatory. As the ADA is law, it would legally supersede the social work Code of Ethics. How can I view this as anything less than stigma? How can social work ethics be used to block peer support? The very experience that makes me valuable to that program was used to shut me out.

I have long believed that the OCD community would benefit greatly from qualified social workers and peer support specialists working together. As long as social workers hold tightly to a phrase I heard recently — “once a client, always a client” — when will the stigma go away enough to create a pathway forward for peer support? We are not second-class citizens. ERP could be so much more approachable and effective if peer supports could be present to mentor, encourage and support from a position of recovery and understanding. We are, after all, the evidence that this treatment works and recovery is attainable.

S. David Hiltabidle, CPS

David Hiltabidle is a Certified Peer Support Specialist living in Western Pennsylvania. He is a founding member of Pittsburgh Bridges OCD, (pittsburghbridgesocd.org) and blogs at ocdtempered.com. He also loves cats, jazz music, Star Wars Legos and playing the saxophone.

Photo by Sasha Freemind on Unsplash