Honoring the life of Celia Brown “A truly impressive advocate of our time”
All of us at Western New York Independent Living (WNYIL) mourn the loss of the life of Celia Brown, one of our pioneering historic mental health advocates, who characterized herself as being a “psychiatric survivor”. She was one of the first self-identified Peer Advocates in New York State in the 1990’s. The Advocates at WNYIL were energized by her personal example of being a bold leader in the psychiatric movement, teaching and empowering WNYIL’s initial Mental Health Peers at conferences throughout New York State. We of WNYIL got to see Celia in action at various protests in which she was calling for people with mental health issues to have human rights, dignity, and other alternatives to care than just force and medication. Being a person of color, she opened doors for others of diversity in color, age, sex, including LGBTQ+, to be heard in local, state, National, and international venues. She gently pushed her fellow survivors into the mainstream mental health service delivery arena, to be heard and to have a voice in how people with mental health issues should be treated. She was often seen in the media, award winning documentaries, and significantly giving testimony in front of the United Nations about the horrific conditions in which people with mental health issues were living, in New York State and the United States in the 1990’s.
Celia was a very clever advocate within the New York State Office of Mental Health (OMH). She is one of very few advocates who have sustained long-term employment with the OMH, despite her involvement with groups and movements that often contradicted the intentions of the Office of Mental Health. She was behind the scenes, in back rooms, and always late for OMH Zoom meetings, showing and giving support to younger and diverse Peer leaders. That was her niche. But she also was a pillar among the mainstream Peers in NYS.
Our Stephanie Orlando, WNYIL’s Chief Operating Officer, shared with me how Celia helped the Youth Power movement by always supporting, encouraging, and validating the voices of our young people. She gave her experience to this young community in which true leaders were born.
I last spoke to her when Kevin Smith, Director of Mental Health PEER Connection (MHPC) and I, where part of a Statewide presentation on “Post Traumatic Growth. Surviving the Buffalo 5/14 Massacre.” She told me how she made sure the higher level OMH personnel would attend our presentation. She said she was in awe of what we presented, and she said more of this needs to be done and to keep on talking about the lack of racial equality that exists in our State. She said she would push our issues within the State Office of Mental Health and for us to push from the outside.
Below is a picture of Celia and a statement made by her MindFreedom International Group, followed by the official OMH Commissioner’s statement on the loss of Celia Brown to our community. We should take notice of what Celia was skillful in doing and follow her lead. She is truly a role model, and her efforts should continue to live on in all our work at WNYIL. May Celia Brown rest in Power!!
MindFreedom International Group
The world lost a great advocate and leader with the passing of Celia Brown on Sunday night, December 11th, 2022. Celia was a self-identified psychiatric survivor who advocated for the rights of psychiatric survivors and people with disabilities around the world. She was a long-time member of MindFreedom International [MFI] and served as President for around 20 years. MindFreedom International is committed to winning human rights and alternatives for people labeled with psychiatric disabilities and Celia embodied the mission through her persistent advocacy.
Celia used her quiet, steady determination and wisdom in leading MindFreedom International. She was clear and firm in her decisions, but always open to hearing and considering the views of others. She was unshakeable in her commitment to supporting people who were going through hard times and helping them not just to survive, but to thrive. As President of MindFreedom, she experienced challenging times with some of her advocacy stances but weathered them in her steadfast way. She continued her leadership of MFI right up until the end.
She was also a founding member of the National People of Color/Consumer Survivor Network and Surviving Race. Celia was well regarded as the Regional Advocacy Specialist at the New York City (NYC) Field Office, NYS Office of Mental Health, providing technical assistance and support to people with psychiatric disabilities and their families and facilitating trainings on peer support, wellness, and recovery approaches in community mental health agencies. The Board of MindFreedom International is extremely appreciative of the work Celia did for the rights of people with disabilities and for her dedication to the work of MindFreedom International. We shall miss her but will follow her lead in continuing our commitment to fight for choice and the rights of people with psychiatric involvement.
-- MindFreedom International Board of Directors
Honoring Celia Brown- a Message from OMH Commissioner Ann Sullivan
Today is a sad day for the peer community as we have lost one of the founders of the peer movement. Celia Brown, who passed away in her home Sunday evening, was an amazing advocate both within the Office of Mental Health and through her leadership on the board of Mad Pride. Celia was not only the first peer specialist in our state civil service system, but also in the country. She helped to create and define the role of the peer specialist in our state facilities and her work is what made the peer specialist role become part of the standard of care for people receiving services.
Of her many accomplishments, Celia was most proud of her leadership in the Adult Home project including an emphasis on helping people discover their passion. That focused work was directly influential in the creation of the state’s recovery centers. She also recognized the importance of mutual support within the peer specialist community and worked diligently to create and then support the annual NYC peer specialist conference. This was a great challenge and something that she loved doing.
Celia was assertive and firm in her convictions, yet always kind, respectful, and willing to consider different perspectives and beliefs. Celia was a role model for so many people in recovery, always an inspiration and she exemplified what is possible. Celia held onto hope and in doing so gave hope. As a woman of color, she offered leadership and guidance, demonstrating for countless individuals what it looks like to overcome multiple barriers. One of her many strengths was not allowing the trauma that contributes to - and is a part of -- the experience of having mental health issues to impact her relationships or willingness to trust and see the good in people.
One of the many beautiful examples of how she lived her life can be seen in how she honored her father’s passing. He was building a house in Ghana when he passed away. Celia took on the responsibility to finish the job and went to Ghana every year to help fulfil his dream. This is the person we lost today, someone who understood the importance of tradition and relationships. Celia was the kind of person who was a natural healer and was always there for anyone who needed someone to talk to. To honor her spirit, let us all make an extra effort to take care of ourselves and each other, create space to be with uncomfortable feelings, and allow this moment to become part of our life experience as we continue her work of making the world a better place by being kind to each other and listening without judgement.
Ann Sullivan, Amanda Saake & the Office of Advocacy and Peer Support Services
(formerly the Office of Consumer Affairs)