What Uber And BlackBerry Taught Me About Our Mental Health System

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Unless you have lived in a small community (or under a rock), you’ve probably heard about Uber: the ride-sharing app that is disrupting the taxi field right now. Regardless of what side of the argument you find yourself on (pro taxi, pro uber, a combination or you simply just don’t care), the change has captured the attention of many and left many asking: What happened and what can we learn from this? Here is my limited take on it.

I have lived through something similar before, experiencing first-hand the crash of Blackberry smartphones when I worked there in 2011 as a usability tester. 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 you basically created the smartphone, 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 (yet) happened. Most of their buildings have been sold 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, like the taxi drivers whose jobs are now in trouble.

The parallels with the Uber/taxi debate come back to me strongly. There was a time where people were mad. Where the Blackberry was like the taxi companies, asking for regulation, tax relief or any way to get a leg up on the competition. Much like taxi companies, they blamed the competition instead of taking some responsibility for creating the space the competitors now occupied by not listening to their own mistakes. It was a space that the company policies had created and now their employees were suffering.

So how does this impact mental health?

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 deju 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 most of us were not.

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, I get the same feelings I had at BlackBerry before the crash. Amazing feedback, direction and support is being offered, but is often met with excuses and a lack of motivation to change.

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.

How are we not listening?

I see services not listening when we speak at length about why we can’t engage someone in their care, instead of just listening to them. When I see well-intentioned community services making services they think people want without actually asking the community what they want.

I see money being invested to provide counselling in a language, only to find out community doesn’t want counselling in that language. I see organizations creating youth-friendly spaces without realizing that video games and colourful walls won’t make the youth trust the organization. We can’t do this anymore, not in a world where we lose more people to suicide than acts of violence annually.

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. To really listen and create services people would want to be a part of.

We pay lip service to engaging users in program creation as the right thing to do. But it’s so much more then that. It’s 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 can’t be the taxi companies, Blackberry or other organizations that refused to adapt and change.

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.

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