Kids seem to have a sixth sense. At least that was my experience of them while teaching middle school about a decade ago. There I was, working hard, while also vigilantly trying to hide the fact that I had spent the previous decade in and out of treatment for bipolar II disorder. Yet, somehow, my students kept on coming to me with their mental health struggles. Could they somehow sense that I was more than just sympathetic -- that my empathy was that of a person who had experienced similar?
I will never clearly know the answer to this question -- but one thing did become clear: I had to help these kids, and not just in the traditional way that a teacher is allowed to help--the old guidance counselor referral -- but REALLY help. I remember my tenure year of teaching, when I sat down with another member of the staff at the school and told this person that I was resigning.
"Are you out of your mind?" my colleague said. "You have a stable job WITH a pension, and the economy is terrible. How could you give that up?"
My answer was simple: I needed to follow my heart-and my heart was with those kids-kids like me who could become anything they wanted if they were treated for their mental health struggles early. I knew this first-hand because I had lived it. After being in the psychiatric hospital at least 13 times during my college career, I had graduated, gone to Columbia University to get a master's in education, and started my journey in recovery teaching the students that I loved.
Yet, because I had a huge loan out from my second degree, I couldn't afford to go back to school again for mental health, so I found an alternative: Peer Specialist training. It turned out that NJ had a program that trained people who were living in recovery from mental illness to provide mental health services to others. The concept was that a person with "lived experience" of mental illness and recovery could really help others to get well.
After the training, I went on to work as a peer specialist in community mental health centers, where I worked alongside social workers, psychiatrists, supported employment specialists, and others helping people to get well. I loved (and still love) the work. I even "hung a shingle" and began my own peer specialist practice, which still exists (shameless plug). And then, I got into training other mental health professionals and peers on how to implement services that really put the client and their recovery first (also known as Recovery-Oriented, Person-Centered services), which I still do also.
So, why do I believe in peer services so much? Well, first, I have seen first-hand how we can provide people with mental illness hope. No one can show a person that they can recover from mental illness like a person who's been there. Second, peers know HOW to recover. Don't get me wrong, recovery looks different for each person, but there are common themes and threads that run across every recovery story. We didn't learn from a textbook how to help people recover. We learned how to help people by recovering ourselves. We've walked the walk, tried all different types of treatments, and we have seen first-hand what is effective. Third, we can be your biggest advocates. We know what the mental health system can be like: how at its worst it can be shaming, stigmatizing, and take away people's freedom. We know this because we've lived through it. And, we don't want you to live through the same pain. So, we'll fight for you like no one else.
I believe that recovery is possible. Not just for me, but for EVERYONE. Does this mean that everyone recovers? No, because not everyone is taught the skills to recover. Also, once a person learns the skills, they have to choose to use them. My peer specialist colleagues and I can give you a flashlight so that you can see your way out of the darkness of mental illness. You make the choice about whether or not to turn the flashlight on. I can tell you, that life can be absolutely beautiful in the light of recovery. Won't you join me here?