Do for. Do with. Cheer On.
Peer support partners support individuals with mental health challenges
By Dick Hughes, special to Marion County
"Everyone goes through some sort of mental health challenges throughout their life. It's really important to make sure that everyone knows it's not something abnormal."
Those are the words of Alexia Sosa. She and her peer support colleagues in Marion County's behavioral health services program know those challenges first-hand, having dealt with them themselves or through family members.
That experience gives them credibility with the individuals they serve – and empathy.
"People with mental health challenges are just people. They're just experiencing life with these challenges, but they're still able to go out there and have healthy, productive lives," said Tammy Brister, a clinical supervisor with peer-delivered services in the Marion County Health and Human Services Department.
"A lot of times the stigma that follows us is that we're not able to make our own choices and have healthy lives, when that's absolutely not accurate. And it's why we have peers in the county."
Peer support partners are visible confirmation for consumers that, "You can do this. You are resilient." For example, Elizabeth Perkins, now a peer support partner with the county's young adult rental assistance program, said she now realizes that her mental health conditions had contributed to her past homelessness.
"I've experienced mental health barriers for probably as long as I can remember, but I didn't know what they were until I was an adult," she said.
Although the practice is spreading throughout Oregon, Marion County has been a leader in recognizing the value of peer partners in treating people with mental health and substance abuse conditions.
"Even in the roles we're in, we're still dealing with our diagnoses; and for the folks in alcohol and drug program, they're still dealing with their recovery. It doesn't have to be debilitating," Perkins said. "It doesn't define us."
Earlier this spring, the county Board of Commissioners publicly reaffirmed its commitment to effective behavioral health programs by declaring May as Mental Health Awareness Month. The commissioners stressed that county services are "person-centered, person-directed, flexible, trauma-informed, culturally responsive, and community inclusive."
Today, Oct. 10, 2019, as the county recognizes World Mental Health Day, we want individuals with mental health needs to know that they are not alone, that hope exists, and the possibility of healing and thriving is real.
Maridee Tudela participated in a county program for young adults with psychoses. Now employed by the county as a peer partner, she describes her role as using her own experience to walk alongside individuals, recognize their frustrations and validate who they are.
Peer partners follow the steps of "Do for. Do with. Cheer on."
For example, youth with mental health challenges are not used to having a voice. "It's very damaging growing up and having to feel like you have to hide it. And you feel like no one will understand," Sosa said.
Sosa helps youth learn the confidence to open up in group meetings, where they will not be judged. With the peer partners, youth have someone to count on – someone who will be there no matter what. "We're not here to pick sides. We're not there to tell them what to do," Sosa said.
Partners help individuals connect with their support systems and drive their own, unique treatment plan. Knowing you have people around you who care is key, said Monica Weber, a family support partner.
Yet family and society can put up barriers, often inadvertently. They may not fully understand a person's diagnosis and thus make such unhelpful, unrealistic comments as, "Just snap out of it" or "If only you'd make better choices." When someone experiences a mental health crisis in public, unknowing bystanders sometimes make fun of the person instead of reacting with empathy and grace.
"There are so many people out there who are judgmental and shaming, and they put down people with mental health challenges," said Brister, the clinical supervisor. "But if they would change their focus, they would see these people build their resiliency – build their recovery."
Brister and her colleagues know that first-hand through their work and through their own experiences.