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"I accepted the invitation for the conference with mixed feelings. 'Yet another boring event for airheads', I thought to myself. And yet, I decided to go – out of courtesy, intending to leave during the first coffee break... Not only did I stay until the end, but I also cried and acclaimed, and was voracious for more."
This is how Mrs. Rada Atanassova, a Chair of an organisation for relatives of persons with mental disabilities, described the conference on the European and Bulgarian perspectives of the concept of experts by experience, which took place on 8th June in Sofia's Red House Centre for Culture and Debate.
The event was a deeply moving wrap-up of the sixth meeting in the frame of The Missing Link project, which is jointly implemented by 6 organisations from Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Portugal and Bulgaria. The two-year initiative, funded by the European Commission's Leonardo da Vinci programme, is devoted to the social inclusion of vulnerable and traditionally excluded groups of people (living in poverty, ethnic minorities, refugees, migrants, etc.) by way of engaging them as experts by experience (EE).
This concept is completely new to Bulgarian context and on first hearing, everybody - from policy-makers to professionals and socially excluded persons themselves, brands it as utopian. Therefore, it was hardly ever expected – even by the organisers, that the event would have so far-reaching repercussions.
The conference started in a predictable, protocol-driven way. Global Initiative on Psychiatry-Sofia, the host of the event, presented its experience and motivation to participate in the project, which was followed by welcome notes on behalf of the national agencies for social assistance, for employment and for persons with disabilities and the social affairs department of Sofia city hall. Then Lut Goossens from the lead organisation De Link, Flanders (Belgium) talked about THE MISSING LINK project and shared Belgian experience in introducing the Experts by Experience (EE) model in poverty. She also gave some convincing figures, concerning the financial surplus for society. A simple comparison of the amount invested in the 4-year training of a discouraged inactive person in a vulnerable position (living in long-term poverty, having mental illness, etc.) is repaid in less than 2 years in the form of income taxes and social and health security contributions, as well as savings from unemployment benefits. These simple calculations silenced the policy-makers and service-providers who attended the event and their attention was sharpened. Jorg Utschakowski from F.O.K.U.S. (Bremen) went on to pile up more arguments, corroborating the feasibility of the EE model. His presentation was focused on Experts by Experience in the field of mental health in Germany. If we assume that Lut and Jorg's discourses challenged the logic and reason of the participants, then Saskia's speech, which came next, touched their hearts, stirring up tears. She started presenting herself as Saskia van Dorp, a trainer with the Institute for User Participation and Policy and an expert by experience as well. Her words, sharing her personal story, were genuine and deeply emotional, imbued with both pain and hope. After this speech, no one could remain indifferent and it was not an easy task for Elitsa Micheva from GIP-Sofia to take the floor and proceed with presenting the empowerment training for users of mental health services, which was carried out in Bulgaria as part of the Missing Link project. She was followed by a participant in the course, who talked about it from the users' perspective – what they have learned and how this training really made a change. Emerging from several long-term hospitalisations because of a 7-month depression, she had started the course and at that time it was the main and often the sole reason for getting out of bed and facing the world. It made her concentrate on the contents of the modules and not on the bad thoughts, still haunting her. The attention and respect of the trainers made her feel important and reinforced her confidence. Shortly after the training the girl started work and she still maintained contact with the other participants who became like family to her.
Another inspiring moment at the conference was Lut's endearing gesture of bestowing the prize, awarded to The Missing Link (as the best good practice of the Leonardo da Vinci programmes, Transfer of Innovation) on GIP-Sofia in token of good partnership and support of their efforts to introduce the model in Bulgaria. To GIP-Sofia, accepting the glass figurine from the lead organisation De Link was a great honour and responsibility as well. It symbolised commitment to the idea and a pledge for perseverance.
An immediate and tangible outcome of the conference was the order of the municipal day care centre for persons with disabilities, which was placed not later than a month after the event. The manager of the facility contracted GIP-Sofia to provide empowerment training for the clients and sensitisation training for the staff as a step of preparation for employing EEs in the service. In executing the order, GIP-Sofia will hire some of the participants in the first empowerment course as members of the training team.
You can read more about the Missing Link project here
You can sign online The European Charter on "The Missing Link Europe – Increasing social inclusion by engaging experts by experience" here