What makes a well-rounded behavioral health workforce who can deliver innovative, person-centered services that can affect change for the better? For Federation, the answer is Peer Specialists. Peers have become an integral part of the behavioral health workforce and Federation has been a pioneer in using peers to deliver services.
Peer Support services began to emerge in 1970s with the introduction of self-help recovery and advocacy organizations. Peers were used and accepted in providing substance abuse services well before they achieved acceptance in mental health system. In 1981, Federation of Organizations was a pioneer in utilizing peer specialists. Our first program here that provided peer support was our Senior Companion Program. People with long-term histories of psychiatric hospitalization worked with adult home residents providing friendly visiting, advocacy, and community integration activities. The program provided opportunities for people in recovery to explore vocational goals by volunteering at community sites such as social programs, adult homes, hospitals, outreach programs, food pantries and soup kitchens. Through the principles of peer support and self-help, Companions helped to improve the quality of life for other individuals within the mental health community. Participants received a meal allowance, travel reimbursement; paid vacation, sick and personal days. They also received on the job training and support. The demonstrated benefits to both the peer worker and the residents they served spurred the growth of the program and variations on the theme of involving peers in the delivery of services. Through the years since, Federation has been working to integrate peers into all aspects of our workforce—both in positions designated for peers and for all other positions within the agency for which an individual is qualified.
What have we learned over the last 35+ years? That peers bring a new perspective to the services we provide. This view has changed the dynamic of service delivery and added another layer of support, communication, and a unique experience for both the peer specialist and the individual they serve. Peers share the experience of living with mental illness or and/or a substance use disorder with the individuals they serve. This shared experience helps form a trusted bond and with that bond comes the attainable goal for recovery.
We’ve learned that peers understand what it is like to live with voices in your head. What it feels like to not have family support or be living on the street. Peers have experienced the side effects of medication and understand what it feels like to lose a job, or a home because of mental illness. Despite all this, they have overcome these challenges to move forward in their recovery. They have progressed, suffered setbacks, and again moved forward. They understand the road to recovery is not a straight line and with each stumbling block comes a chance for learning and growing.
Time and time again, peer services have been shown to be a benefit to the individual subsequently improved the quality of their life. Since the 1980s, Federation has seen amazing success for its members by incorporating peers into every facet of service delivery within the agency. Peers participate in groups, work in our residences, and are deployed with members of our mobile teams. The truth, honesty, experience, and hope that they bring to our members is immeasurable.
In addition to providing hope, support, and trust, peers also advocate on behalf of the client, making sure the services they receive are person-centered and that the individual is involved with decision making regarding their care. This is turn helps the individual learn to advocate on behalf of themselves, bringing them closer to independently managing their own care and taking more control over their own lives.
The benefits to individuals who serve as peers are equally astonishing. For many, this role fulfills a greater purpose and serves as a calling. They are able to use their life experiences, recovery and accomplishments in a way that help others do the same. On the same note, they are able to be gainfully employed leading to greater financial security and a change to engage in meaningful work.
Transcending the Role
As we move toward a greater acceptance and acknowledgement of the true value peers bring to the behavioral health workforce, we must think of peers as also transcending the role. Federation has many individuals who have achieved great success and moved up to managerial and higher-level positions who possess lived experience with mental illness, either their own or with someone close to them. These individuals utilize their unique perspective to better inform their practice and give them a keen insight into the challenges both members and staff face on a daily basis. To be able to see and truly understand multiple perspectives is something that cannot be learned rather it comes from one’s own life narrative. They are true examples that your diagnosis does not define you but contributes to your value as a whole as they continue to work on their own recovery while leading satisfying lives. These individuals are proof that there are role models everywhere and the possibility of moving beyond your diagnosis is absolutely attainable.
As a social service organization, we must continue to push other organizations, managed care companies, healthcare providers, and the greater public to understand the value of peer support. We must help them see that the peer support component can and will work in tandem with other behavioral health services for a more cohesive and holistic plan of care. The trusted bond formed through the peer-to-peer model can be the foundation on which other services can be built upon.