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Amplifying our Voices: A Talk with Tom Grinley

As director of the Office of Consumer and Family Services at the New Hampshire Bureau of Mental Health Services, Tom Grinley has a job title that can give people pause. It sounds like it might have to do with warranties. Once, he relates, someone called his office to find out why they were charged sales tax for a doughnut at one grocery store, but not at another.

But, as he explains, “The primary vision of what my office does is to amplify the voices of those with mental health challenges. I do quality service reviews for mental health centers and help folks who feel they have been mistreated file complaints We have a seat at the table when the state makes a policy that affects each of our lives. I am proud of that work.”

Tom’s work in peer support grew out of his own lived experience. “I was working as a clinical coordinator in a program that worked with folks who had been dual diagnosed with a mental illness and developmental disability. While there, I had an episode and was hospitalized. I then found out that I had lost my job. Officially, my position had been eliminated, but I later found out that was not the case. I was already on the Mental Health Planning and Advisory Council. Through that work, I began working as a program planner. I was there for less than year when my current position came up, and I knew that was what I wanted.

“You see, when I was hospitalized, I felt shame. I had no self-esteem. I completely withdrew.

“Then one day, I came into the cafeteria and another patient challenged me to tell my story. To my surprise, something about support from peers made me feel safe enough. I told them my story, things that I had never told family or therapists, things I had never told anyone.”

“That marked the first day of my journey to recovery.

“So for me, a job where a diagnosis was a requirement, where I could give a voice to the power of peer support, was a dream come true. But it can’t be just my voice. People need to speak up so all our voices are heard.”

He sees fighting stigma as still being the biggest challenge. “I hear clinicians refer to ‘a borderline.’ No, that is a person with borderline personality disorder. Not a ‘schizo,’ a person with schizophrenia.”

He tells of a local radio DJ joking on air that she was having a bipolar day.

“I wrote the station a letter. Mental illness not a punchline to a joke, mental illness should never be the punchline of a joke. And I got an apology. I am constantly trying to correct it. We don’t’ talk about people that way.”

Reflecting on his work in advocacy, Tom notes, “On my email signature, I have a Latin phrase that translates as ‘Nothing about us without us.’ That’s so important. There’s so much at the state and federal level that can affect us. The state is always rewriting rules. I make sure to give input so that peer voices are heard and peer support is protected.”

As an example of what can change when that happens, he offers, “The secure psychiatric unit was in a prison under the Department of Corrections. It didn’t belong there. Now it’s being moved to New Hampshire Hospital and operated by the Department of Health and Human Services. It took two years, but it’s happening.”

Another success he mentions is getting a ban on conversion therapy. “That took years, though it is well known to be ineffective and actually harmful. Then this year there was an attempt to turn back.

“I get feedback. I changed the way people think about mental health.”

Tom says the work is far from finished.

“Currently, people have stepped up to develop a plan for our peer workforce. Recently, there has been investment in New Hampshire’s 10-year mental health plan. People showing up has been crucial.

“In February, there were 350 vacancies in 10 mental health centers in New Hampshire. There is a staffing crisis. We can’t get services we might need. We need adequate funds, more resources into the system. Again, peer voices will be crucial to making that happen.

“Intentional Peer Support began in New Hampshire. It is an entire philosophy that is built around self-determination. We are seeing peer support positions being added to hospitals and mental health centers. We need to protect those positions, so that peer support is not co-opted into something it is not.”

Asked about what else people need to do, he replies, “Constantly keeping an eye on these little things that might affect us – you never know where they are going to come from. Keep yelling and getting ourselves recognized, we’re here – listen to us!

“The New Hampshire Mental Health Peer Alliance is a great organization. We track legislation and work to make people understand that stigma is discrimination.”

Does he get tired? “Always. Fighting the same things over and over again can be exhausting, but the small wins -- the DJ’s apology, the secure psychiatric unit moving to New Hampshire Hospital – those keep me going.”

Editor’s note: Since this interview, Tom has accepted a position with the Office of Quality Assurance and Integrity. He will continue to amplify the voice of those of us with mental health challenges. We wish him all the best.

The NH Mental Health Peer Alliance is made up of people with lived experience with mental illness, supporting peers to advocate for equal rights and a recovery-based mental health system. We would love to have you join us! Please be in touch. or (603) 809-7884

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