Celia Brown: Psychiatric Survivor, Pioneer, and Global Activist for Change

NYAPRS Note: This week, our most beloved Celia Brown passed away. Celia will always be one of the greatest pioneers and people our movement will ever know and, accordingly, a number of Celia’s closest friends are joining with NYAPRS and the NYAPRS Cultural Competence Thursday December 22nd between 4:00-6:00 pm EST to host a special zoom event to give time for people to share their love, gratitude and loss with each other. Jonathan Edwards and Taina Lang will be facilitating the discussion. Please come to share, either verbally or via chat, your feelings with your community. (See below for the recording of this memorial ceremony.) .

December 22nd Memorial Webinar (2 hours, 29 min.):
NYAPRS honoring and memorial sharing:  https://youtu.be/n13PVEkTTzg

Audio-video tribute to Celia Brown by Jonathan P. Edwards (4:03 min.):

Celia Brown: Psychiatric Survivor, Pioneer, and Global Activist for Change

By  Amy Biancolli  Mad in America  December 16, 2022

Celia Brown, a psychiatric survivor and activist who was revered — even beloved — for her foundational and ongoing efforts in mental health advocacy and the peer movement, has died after a battle with cancer. Known for her warmth and decency, her activism and resolve, Brown is being mourned across many overlapping communities in mental health, human rights, civil rights, and disabilities activism. Her decades of work included campaigning for human rights, leading MindFreedom International, and working as a pioneering on-staff peer-support specialist for the New York State Office of Mental Health.

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Message from OMH Commissioner Sullivan

December 13, 2022

Yesterday was 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)


And those of us at the Academy of Peer Services will miss Celia not only for the significant contributions she made to our courses, but also to our community, and the light of lovingkindness she brought to our world. She lives on in each of us. 

In Honor and Remembrance of Celia Brown

December 12, 2022 By Harvey Rosenthal, Jonathan P. Edwards, Gita Enders, Taina Lang, and Laura Prescott

I deeply regret to inform you all that Celia Brown passed away yesterday.

Celia was and will always be one of our movement’s most cherished and most influential leaders, a very kind, devoted, determined and humble leader who led the way in the advancement of rights-based advocacy, peer support, trauma informed approaches, cultural competence and humility, peer specialist roles and numerous efforts to combat racism and discrimination.

She was a long-time leader in the consumer/survivor/ex-patient movement who was introduced to the civil rights movement early in her childhood by her family’s experience and role in the struggle.

She was a founding member of the National People of Color/Consumer Survivor Network and following the deaths of people of color across the nation due to deadly force of police, she helped to create Surviving Race: The intersection of Injustice, Disability and Human Rights in 2014 to explore the intersections between race and disability in the human rights movement. 

Celia’s advocacy on behalf of people with psychiatric and other disabilities spanned the globe. Celia served as President of the Board of MindFreedom International, served as their main representative to the United Nations and collaborated with other disability organizations on the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. She traveled to Finland, New Zealand and Geneva and marched on the roads of Ghana, West Africa to lift the stigma and disenfranchisement of Ghanians with disabilities to change its laws.

For a great many years, Celia served as the Regional Advocacy Specialist at the 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 recoveryapproaches incommunity mental health agencies.

Celia was a humble but powerful changemaker and truthteller, whose love, kindness and inspiration touched everyone she met. She was both a Mother of our Movement and she was a very dear friend to me.

Her legacy will live forever. Every time, we stand up for recovery and peer support and march for choice, rights and social justice….Celia will be there.

Harvey Rosenthal, NYAPRS CEO

When I entered the peer support workforce community nearly two decades ago, Celia Brown was one of the first pioneers of the consumer/survivor/ex-patient movement I met; she soon became an ally, a mentor, and a deeply close personal friend. Celia possessed unparalleled wisdom and skill navigating historically oppressive systems while simultaneously “changing the narrative” within these same hierarchies.

She was a tireless advocate, possessed a buoyant spirit, and was intentional about supporting others. Celia inspired her fellow advocates to speak out against inhumane practices, racism, and stigma. She skillfully and inimitably traversed her multiple roles with grace and discretion. Mere words cannot capture the breadth and depth of support Celia exchanged with her peers, friends, and family.

On a more personal note, I always experienced a sense of excitement, hope and rejuvenation talking with Celia. Regardless of what was going on in our lives and throughout the world, we always found something to be grateful for and laugh about. We sought comic relief to buffer the harshness of police violence, political upheaval, and structural racism. Celia and I share a birthday and were born in the same year. I am fortunate to have worked with Celia on planning the New York City Conference for Working Peer Specialists for the past 17 years; convening the Inaugural Surviving Race Dialogues this past summer in Savannah, Georgia; and hosting virtual peer support groups on Saturday afternoons for 14 months during the pandemic.

Celia sought to change systems one person at a time and never deemed any cause insurmountable. I will miss her immensely and will always be enriched by her dedication, friendship and support.

Jonathan P. Edwards, Ph.D., Peer Support Workforce Advocate and Researcher, Colleague and Longtime Friend 


When I returned to New York after over 10 years working in behavioral health in rural Arizona, one of the first people I met was Celia Brown. Her warm and giving soul made me so comfortable. As I learned more and more about Celia, I was honored and humbled that she took time to call me in on the movement and its history as she and others in the consumer/survivor/ex-patient network shared their knowledge and their time.

Celia made time for everything, I too worked with her for the past nine years on planning and executing the annual New York City Conference for Working Peer Specialists. She was a leader, who did not make one feel “led,” she was a wealth of historical knowledge, compassion, and passion for the work and for the international peer community.

Celia was always there for people; I remember riding home with her on the subway from Greenpoint in Brooklyn, where we had just spent time with visitors from the Netherlands, telling our stories. It was bitterly cold, and she had a long ride to the Bronx ahead, but she came out for these people as she always did for her family, friends, and colleagues.

I had the privilege of being invited by Celia to take part in the 2022 Surviving Race Dialogues and gratefully appreciated the opportunity to be of service at this social justice event. Celia was all about advocacy, equity, and justice, and my life will be forever changed by her resolute presence and kind mentoring.

Gita Enders, Director of the Office of Behavioral Health Medical and Professional Affairs, New York City Health + Hospitals


I have been battling for almost an hour to put the words together on how to describe the celebration of the life of Ms. Celia Brown and what an inspiration she is to so many.  I felt such a deep heartache once I heard the news of her passing, but as I reflect, I am reminded of my profound gratitude for having the opportunity to get to know who she truly was and what she stood for.  Celia was a pioneer and what we call a Mother of The Movement. 

Celia was not only a driving force in OMH as the first peer advocate, but I often reflect that her work outside the organization was her true heart and soul.  Celia was the voice for the voiceless and offered resiliency and strength for the people; as one of the founding members of Surviving Race: The Intersection of Injustice, Disability, and Human Rights, her work stemmed from addressing the trauma of systematic racism, police brutality, and inequalities within communities of color and the mental health system.

I have such wonderful memories with my dear friend.  Celia and I would share stories of adventures in Ghana, her love for family, and her passion for changing the World.  Celia once told me, “We all have a place here, and our voices can never be silenced!”

She is a true inspiration, and to honor her legacy in advocacy; I will carry the lessons Celia taught me of the past that hold a tremendous amount of value, harness those lessons, and build on that foundation for future advocacy.

She will forever be missed.

Taina Laing, CEO, Baltic Street AEH


For Celia on Her Way Home Tonight

Celia Brown died tonight. The stillness of my memories are filled with the strength and power of Celia’s enormous heart. So many times she wordlessly anchored a space, making it feel safe because she was there. I admired the way she let us into her world, sharing her joy, anger, sadness, and love with tremendous grace and courage. 

Celia Brown was a pioneer of peer support, an ardent advocate for people re-claiming power and speaking for themselves.  Her global accomplishments could fill many pages but she most often spoke about the importance of relationships in her life; how proud she was of her son, how much she valued family, being a mother, daughter, a sister and friend. And of course, she remarked on being from the Bronx in an unmistakable accent that became thicker with every word. Celia regularly made communities bigger by reaching out to diverse groups of people and welcoming them into discussions and activities. She believed in possibilities, in the goodness of people, in their ability to work out differences and find a common ground. In this way, Celia instilled hope and encouraged others to do the same. Despite the setbacks, she kept moving forward, with grace and a conviction that it would “be ok.”

 I’ve known Celia almost half my life and it doesn’t feel possible that she is gone.  Despite the enormous sadness, I am also grateful for the powerful legacy she leaves behind, of profound generosity, abiding belief in others to build connections rather than increase the divides. To me she will always be an example of what can happen when we dare to live with our hearts full and open. Celia Brown is finally free. I went outside this evening to gaze at the stars, to see if I could find her leaving trails across the sky before escaping into the inky night on her way home.

Laura Prescott, President, Sister Witness International

From Institute for the Development of Human Arts

Dear Friend,

This week, we lost a friend, mentor, teacher, pioneer, and elder in Celia Brown. A Mother of the Movement, and a fierce advocate for the rights of all of us who identify as mad, mentally ill, disabled, neurodivergent, and survivors.

Alongside our heartache, we feel profound gratitude for the opportunity to have known Celia and to have learned from her. As a founding IDHA member, Celia held the history of the consumer/survivor/ex-patient and peer movements, reminding us where we come from, the hard fought battles we have won, and the challenges that lie ahead.

Celia taught us so much about how to transform oppressive systems from the inside, while staying connected to social movements on the outside. As the first peer specialist in not only NY State but the country, she blazed a trail for peer support, bringing its power to the masses. Celia implicitly understood and always amplified the connections between the traumas of systematic racism and police brutality, and inequalities within communities of color and the mental health system.

Celia taught us that in order to navigate the disagreement and conflict that accompany movement organizing, respect and mutuality are critical. In our efforts to dream and build transformative futures, we will not always agree. Celia built bridges with everyone, and saw our differences not as a barrier, but an opportunity for cohesion and power.

Celia’s life and memory are proof that we can transform harmful, oppressive mental health systems. Our individual actions are connected to a wider vision for liberation. We are bigger than ourselves. We are collective action across geographies; we are connected to lineages across generations. We stand on her shoulders as we continue to fight.

Rest in power, Celia. May your memory be a revolution.

On December 4, Celia participated in a movement lineages panel as part of our Healing as Homecoming festival. She was joined by Sascha DuBrul and Stefanie Lyn Kaufman-Mthimkhulu in a conversation moderated by Vesper Moore to pay homage to the activists and survivors that came before us, and take stock of where we are today in movement organizing efforts for mad liberation, disability justice, and transformative mental health.

This conversation was a powerful opportunity to reflect on how radical mental health organizing has shifted and evolved over the past several decades, and share key lessons to inform future work. We are heartbroken and shocked to learn that this was the final time we would hear from and share space with Celia.

We share this recording in Celia’s honor. As we grieve her loss and celebrate her memory, may we also commit to transmit these lineages and histories to those entering the movement today, and those who will join the fight in generations to come.

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