Behavioral Health News Spotlight on Excellence – An Interview with Joseph Wilson, Peer Specialist with Services for the UnderServed


David Minot, Executive Director of Mental Health News Education, the non-profit organization that publishes Behavioral Health News, interviews Joseph Wilson, a Certified Addiction Recovery Coach and Peer Specialist with Services for the UnderServed in NYC. Joseph details his work at the Harlem Wellness Works clinic to provide outreach and support for individuals living with mental illness and substance use disorders.

Interview Transcript

David Minot: Hi, and welcome to the Behavioral Health News Spotlight on Excellence Series, where we feature exceptional leaders and innovative healthcare solutions that are raising the standards of care and behavioral health community. My name is David Minot and I’m the Executive Director of Mental Health News Education, the nonprofit organization that publishes Behavioral Health News and Autism Spectrum News. Our mission is devoted to improving lives and the delivery of care for people living with mental illness, substance use disorder, and autism while also supporting their families and the professional communities that serve them by providing a trusted source of science-based education, information, advocacy, and quality resources in the community.

Today, we are speaking with Joseph Wilson, and experienced Certified Addiction Recovery Coach and Peer Specialist who has worked with Services for the UnderServed for the past four years. Joseph is a vital member of the SUS outreach team at the Wellness Works Harlem and Harlem satellite program. Joseph is also incredibly proactive in several community initiatives and has forged positive relationships with many community-based partners. He began his career at SUS with the intensive mobile treatment team and transitioned to clinic services in 2018. Prior to joining Services for the UnderServed, Joseph worked for two years on both a part-time and a voluntary basis, lending his skills to group facilitation and patient advocacy within the New York City Hospital System.

Joseph, thanks so much for being here today!

Joseph Wilson: Thank you for having me, today David

David: Please tell us a bit about the program that you’re currently working for.

Joseph: I work with Services for the UnderServed CTI Harlem Wellness Works clinic. We’re a community health-based organization who provides outreach and in-clinic services for individuals with substance abuse and mental health – both co-occurring disorders.

David: Can you provide an overview of the Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinic (CCBHC)?

Joseph: Sure. So here, initially, we started off with services that were just geared towards substance abuse. But now recently, we’ve integrated an array of services that includes mental health providers, telehealth medicine, housing, vocational peer support, as well as community outreach treatment services.

David: I would love to hear about the hospital where you’re working. Can you give an overview of that and how it connects back to the clinic?

Joseph: We collaborate with several city hospitals and community-based organizations to offer a collaborative service to transition individuals to the next level of care when they’re either in crisis, needing detox, or at the stage of change where they are ready to enter rehab services for inpatient treatment. So, we provide those transitions of care and we then link the patient, once they’re returning to the community, back to our outpatient clinic CCBHC services at the Wellness Works clinic.

David: You are doing very important work to help people during a time of need. I think it would help to give a picture of what a day of engagement looks like for you. Can you walk us through the referral to engagement and then the connection back to clinics?

Joseph: Sure. One of the community-based providers or city-based hospitals would call or send us an email requesting support for an individual who has consented to receiving substance abuse services or substance abuse and mental health services. At that point, we would then check the demographics and then find means of contacting the individual. We call them “participants” and to try to shy away from calling clients or consumers. They are participants because we deliver a patient-centered approach and care and they are active participants in their treatment plan. So, we have an engagement. And at that point we assess their needs and their treatment options and then we would make a referral to a rehab, detox, or outpatient clinic or refer them directly to our clinic.

At that point, after the engagement, we will coordinate transportation with the agency that they’re accepted to and then after we get all of the consents done, we would encourage them once we’re ready for discharge or when they’re speaking with a discharge planner to then reach back out to us for that linkage of care to make sure that they won’t fall between the cracks from completion of treatment back to the community. So that’s how it comes back full circle to the clinic.

David: Do you have a particular success story in mind from your work?

Joseph: Oh, yeah. I can provide you several! There is one where it’s directly connected to the clinic and the services that we provide here and how a person’s needs aren’t just based on one factor – it’s a holistic approach with several factors. It may be one thing that they may have needs for, but through engagement and building rapport, using skills like motivational interviewing, and that intention of peer support, we build a rapport. At this point, we have the participant feeling comfortable enough to then start really telling us about some of the real underlying needs that they may have. Sometimes it may stem from just one simple thing.

We had a participant who was coming to the clinic for services and engaging in mental health services as well as substance abuse counseling. But then as he started to engage with the vocational specialist, he ran into a barrier of not having a state ID. He had a city ID but not a state ID and was motivated to work. Initially, he was frustrated because of that barrier. But through the intentional peer support, and just making him feel comfortable and staying consistent, we were able to (after COVID) have him come into the clinic.

And we started working on some ways to overcome those barriers. I assisted him with obtaining an application in a waiver form for his green card, which he lost in the transition of moving from place to place, shelter to shelter. We filled out the application, which got sent back twice and stayed consistent. He called me about two weeks ago and told me that the $450 fee was waived and the application was approved. Now he’s just gone for his biometrics to do his fingerprint and then he will have his green card, which will allow him to go to DMV and get a state ID. Because we were able to assist him with that, now he’s able to then get that ID to seek employment again. And now he can seek those vocational services that we provide.

And through that, we’ve gotten him to actually open up more – he’s actively engaged in his treatment and he’s coming to the clinic engaged and doing sessions regularly. Through any setbacks he stayed motivated. Even when his application was sent back, he stayed consistent with us because he knew he had that support. That’s so important. This is an individual who doesn’t have any immediate family in New York.

And without you, he wouldn’t be where he is now. That must be a good feeling.

Oh, of course. I mean, it’s very satisfying. But you know, I do this from the heart to give back to the community providing services. It’s about empowering Each One Teach One. I can help you overcome a barrier and then in the process of doing that teach something, motivate you towards something or another goal, encourage you to work on some things. It’s a win-win.

David: You mentioned COVID. I’m curious, how did COVID impact what you do?

Joseph: As we all know, COVID impacted the world, let alone New York City, let alone our organization. But through strong leadership here at Wellness Work we were able to come up with a plan to still deliver services via telehealth. And that was an amazing thing because it afforded us the opportunity to actually be a little more consistent than we might have been when seeing the participants here on a regular basis. So now we’re calling them and we’re doing safety checks and wellness checks on a regular basis.

David: Telehealth was really fantastic to have during COVID. And I guess you are probably still using it.

Joseph: Of course, and we have combined it too. Sometimes the telehealth allows us the ability to be able to assess someone that may need in-person services by doing a video call via Zoom or Teams. We can then put eyes on a participant who may have not seen someone so quickly. So that allows us to do a real thorough wellness check via telehealth services.

David: What are some of the highlights of the work that you do as a Peer?

Joseph: A lot of highlights are being able to see a participant at the pre contemplative stage or in crisis mode then seeing that participant excited and motivated after the engagement and a few days of support, if it’s a few days, then to see them return to the clinic. It’s just so rewarding, it’s self-rewarding. It is just a validation of the important work we do

Another example just today from the community outreach. A gentleman came to the clinic today and reached out to us just from our community outreach efforts without connection with MTA. By doing community outreach, he was able to contact us looking into services. And we assessed his needs and determined that detox would be a good fit for him at that particular time. He was ambivalent, but we engaged, stayed consistent, and the next day he went to treatment.

I got a call three days later with a discharge plan. And now back to your first question, it came full circle because they called us wanting to know the address and to schedule an appointment.

He showed up today for an appointment and for some more engagement around some of his needs and we were able to share some community-based resources that can support his housing needs and his employment needs. He was just so grateful and humbled to have the support and have someone that he can relate to in this peer work. And that’s another beauty and rewarding thing about this work that we do. When you do this peer work, you’re able to share some stories of strength and resiliency to motivate us and to use that to elicit change.

David: I would imagine that you may have even formed some friendships and bonds with people and their experiences over time.

Joseph: Well, these rapports and therapeutic alliances, they never stop because recovery never stops – life doesn’t stop. It’s an ongoing process. You may need a lot of support today and a little bit tomorrow, but as long as the support is there, that’s what bridges the gap.

David: What about some challenges that you have had to face?

Joseph: Just drawback from the patient themselves. And that’s normal. We overcome those barriers and challenges with consistency, positive reinforcement, and validations. And having someone that’s providing non-judgmental support that is patient-centered, that is sometimes what makes the difference given those barriers and challenges. It helps because they feel that they have somebody to walk with through though challenges.

Peer specialists sometimes face our own challenges as well. Sometimes you find a participant who might be saying, “It’s ok, it’s alright. We’re gonna get through it Mr. Wilson, it’s alright.” So, it’s two way street.

David: If you had a wish list, what do you think could be added to this program to make it better?

Joseph: Some more funding is one wish! More staffing too. And what I mean by that is just more individuals who are passionate about this work, who decide to go into this field for whatever reason but for the right reasons and are willing to really make a difference in someone lives. That’s one of my biggest passions. This is why I continue to do this work every day. I give 110% every day to fill those voids – at least I try to.

David: I really admire the work you do. You’re saving lives. And with your own life experiences, you’re able to relate to these participants. And I’m sure it is a lot more meaningful and powerful in some instances coming directly from you versus just hearing from doctors and other staff.

Joseph: Of course. Sometimes, you find a patient that may be so resistant to treatment, to progress, or to change that it may not be until that point that they do have peer engagement – that you see some change or motivation.

David: It has been wonderful to learn about the important work you’re doing and I really commend you for devoting your life to helping those in need, working with Services for the UnderServed. It’s been such a pleasure to speak with you!

Joseph: Thank you, I’m humbled. I appreciate you appreciate your time.

For more information about Services for the UnderServed, please visit and stay tuned for our next installment of the Behavioral Health News Spotlight on Excellence Series.

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