People USA was born directly out of a struggle for civil rights. The broader history to which People USA belongs has come to be known generally as the Consumer/Survivor/Ex-Patient Movement. This movement gave rise to what we now call Peer Services, a field that has become a valuable addition, alternative, and source of continuing innovation to the traditional behavioral health system.
Inspired by other social movements of the 1960s – such as the Civil Rights Movement – consumers, survivors of psychiatric abuse, and ex-patients began to break themselves and their peers out of the chains of institutionalization (state-run psychiatric centers), forced treatment, and a broader system of care where discouragement and perpetual illness were the expectations. This coincided with an overall drive towards deinstitutionalization, spurred on by budget demands, and by newer pharmaceuticals that began to replace torturous psychiatric methods.
From forming groups, to developing services, to starting whole peer-run agencies, the movement grew into a force pushing back against that system, a drive that continues to this day.
It was in that milieu that People USA was born. In the 1980s, people being discharged from New York State’s Hudson River Psychiatric Center began to come together in local communities to educate, advocate for, and support each other as they built or re-built their lives.
They quickly realized that they needed a place to call their own, an organization operated of and by people with their own similar lived experiences. This would ensure that any services provided would truly promote the interests of consumers, survivors, and ex-patients, without needing to conform to standards, practices, and values that are not consumer-driven, person-centered, or recovery-oriented.
In 1990, Sally Clay, a seasoned leader in the broader movement, organized these local peer groups into PEOPLe, Inc. (Projects to Empower and Organize the Psychiatrically Labeled), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in Poughkeepsie, NY. Diane Coté became our first Executive Director. Sally, Diane, and our committed board of directors, staff, and volunteers worked tirelessly to lay the foundations for People USA today.
These courageous and resilient pioneers started to demand a system that allowed them to stay integrated in community, that respected their self-determination and choice, and that never gave up on the promise that people living with behavioral health issues can and do get better.
To this day, in all that we do, we continue to educate, advocate for, and support each other. We continue to push back against the traditional system, so that it works better for people and communities. That’s where we came from, and we will never forget.