There is a Danish proverb that says, “He knows the water best who has waded through it.” For those who are traversing the waters of mental illness, this is particularly true, and it is with this knowledge that Federation of Organizations was among the first to begin employing individuals who had been recipients of mental health services to work in positions where they could assist and motivate others who were in earlier stages of the same journey.
In 1981, Federation first established our Senior Companion Program. Modeled after our existing Foster Grandparent Program (which paired healthy seniors with at-risk children in schools), this new program paired individuals who were recovering from mental illness with people in adult homes and psychiatric institutions with the goal of helping to improve their lives and guide them toward a healthier, more productive future.
At this time, people were being released into the community from psychiatric institutions, and although new psychotropic medications were becoming available, “recovery” from mental illness was a concept that was just beginning to be acknowledged as a possibility. Individuals who had been institutionalized were now living with family members or in adult homes or group homes, and there were limited community programs available for support. Pre-conceived limitations were accepted as the norm, and it was expected that there was nothing to expect other than the status quo. As an agency that is built on the principle of “helping people help themselves,” Federation understood the capacity of those who had overcome these barriers to help guide those on the other side over them to see that a brighter future was possible.
What began as a pilot program in one town on Long Island grew to encompass an entire county within five years. With the success of the program, younger people were referred to Federation, and expressed a desire to expand their recovery by reaching out to others, but weren’t able to participate in the program because of age restrictions (senior companions must be aged 60 or older). Federation responded to this need by expanding the role of peers within the agency, and their occupations vary as much as the individuals themselves.
People in recovery work in our homeless outreach program and in our PROS recovery centers. They are part of our assertive community treatment team and they staff The Advocacy Coalition, a Federation program that is comprised of experienced advocates who are concerned about improving the quality of services available to the mental health community. In Brooklyn, our peers work in adult homes and in Queens they are employed in adult homes and in our vocational program, Big Nosh, operating a snack bar on the grounds of Creedmoor Psychiatric Center. As Federation of Organizations grew, so did the opportunity to employ people who had traveled the rocky road of recovery, enabling us to provide the most comprehensive and compassionate – and therefore effective – treatment possible. Quite simply, because of the common bond of experience, peers are able to help people find the means to their own recovery. The success of these programs is significant, and because of our commitment to this treatment method, approximately 20% of the 340 people who work for Federation of Organizations are former consumers of mental health services.
Federation of Organizations now provides services in Nassau, Suffolk, Queens and Kings Counties in New York. It is safe to say that having people in recovery partake in the delivery of services has contributed directly to our monumental growth. Nearly three decades after the inception of our unique pilot program, recovery from mental illness is now regarded as a viable possibility rather than an anomaly, and employing people who are examples of that recovery has become more widespread throughout the mental health community. These strides in the movement to employ consumers have been noteworthy because of the overwhelming evidence that they are an effective component in the treatment milieu. To quote yet another adage, “Nothing succeeds like success.”