When Michael Hlebechuk was 15, he won a Portland regional chess championship. His grade point average was nearly perfect, and he scored higher in math achievement than any other student at his high school.
But no matter how well he performed, Hlebechuk worried he wasn’t good enough. He felt he could never please his father, and to make matters worse, Hlebechuk’s anxiety prevented him from sleeping for 30 days.He became psychotic.
“I had a delusion that I had rabies, my dog had rabies, and my parents had rabies,” Hlebechuk said. “I believed the sheriff would come out and shoot us all.”
Plagued by depression, mania and physical and mental abuse, Hlebechuk was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. By the time he turned 19, he was admitted to the now closed Dammasch State Hospital in Wilsonville, Oregon.
Years later, after receiving the help he needed to get well, Hlebechuk dedicated his career to educating others about mental illness. He did this by joining organizations that advanced the Peer Recovery Movement and by assuming numerous roles in state government – including at Oregon State Hospital, where he’s remembered for his advocacy on behalf of patients; and the Office of Consumer Activities (OCA), where he worked to enhance resources for peer-based groups.
Hlebechuk retired from state service this spring.
“People need to have their traumas addressed,” Hlebechuk said about what keeps him motivated. “We need to tell our stories so everyone can get the treatment they need.”
Advocating for Change
The Peer Recovery Movement asserts people with mental illnesses should have primary control over decisions about their own care – a belief Hlebechuk has stood behind for 30 years.
His work began in 1987 when he was elected as the first board president for Mind Empowered, Inc., Oregon’s first publically funded mental health agency run and governed by peers.
Since then, he’s taken on other roles to empower consumers and survivors of the mental health system. This includes directing the Office of Consumer Technical Assistance, coordinating Oregon’s largest peer-operated drop-in center, leading a peer-advocate training program, and serving as outreach coordinator and interim director of the OSH Peer Recovery Services Department.
Two years ago, he made yet another professional move – this time to become the first director of the Office of Consumer Activities for the Oregon Health Authority. The purpose of the new agency is to give people with mental health and addiction histories a strong voice within Oregon’s behavioral health system.
In this role, Hlebechuk developed regional networks in the state made up of organizations, peers and peer leaders, who could teach one another how to grow, apply for grants, and work with local legislators.
Hlebechuk also worked to develop an annual conference where the regional representatives could convene, create a unified voice on fundamental tenants of the Peer Recovery Movement, and forge a strong, informal lobbying base to reshape mental health in Oregon.
Establishing an anti-discrimination initiative was also important to him. For example, he wants people to know that 4.3 percent of people across the country have severe mental illnesses – and they’re only responsible for 4.3 percent of all violent crimes.
“We are no more violent than the next group of people,” Hlebechuk said. “In actuality, we are survivors of extreme trauma. We are far more likely to be victims of violence than to be perpetrators of violence.”
Kevin Fitts is familiar with Hlebechuk’s ambition. As the executive director of the Oregon Mental Health Consumers Association, Fitts has worked with Hlebechuk on everything from drafting policies to establishing programs. If anything, Fitts said his friend’s tenacity has grown with time.
“Mike is very intelligent, industrious, resourceful and creative,” he said. “He’s a true pioneer of our movement.”
Libbie Rascon agrees. As the coordinator for the OCA, she said she’s continually inspired by Hlebechuk’s passion, determination and tirelessness for the cause.
“One of the things I noticed and appreciated about Michael was the way he would connect with people on a personal level,” she said. “He taught me about the Oregon Health Authority, about Oregon State Hospital, about mental health rules and legislation.
“Most importantly, he taught me how to listen to every single person’s story. He is a very genuine and dedicated person, and I expect him to remain a game changer.”
In the two years he was on the job, Hlebechuk said he barely scratched the surface of what he wanted to do. But he had to switch gears when he developed a severe kidney disease, caused by being prescribed too much lithium for too long.
Now, he leads a nomadic life, exploring the United States in a van with his wife and two dogs. He also plans to write a book and start a blog to educate people about the value and importance of the Peer Recovery Movement.
“I want to have a strong voice. I want to write what I really think,” Hlebechuk said. “Hopefully, my story will influence people.”