“It’s not how you fall, it’s how you get back up.” That’s the mantra of David Yarborough, a full-time peer specialist working at Metrocare, a nonprofit serving people with mental illness in North Texas. Yarborough sees a host of people every day – people who sometimes say their visits with him are better than seeing a psychiatrist. (“In Texas, People With Mental Illness Are Finding Work Helping Peers,” NPR, July 11, 2017).
As a peer specialist, David is living in recovery with a mental illness. He has been trained in assisting others in their own recovery and wellness and helping them regain control over their lives. With lived experience, David has a greater understanding of what his clients are experiencing. In short, they have been through a lot of things David has been through – and vice versa.
“When it comes to convincing people who are suspicious of doctors to seek help, peers are often the one who can connect fastest, and convince those who need help to get treatment and services,” said Jim Zahniser, a licensed clinical psychologist, researcher and consultant with The Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute.
Peer specialist training takes approximately 43 hours over five days. It covers topics like ethics, effective listening, the role of peer support in recovery and how to use your own recovery story as a tool for others. During a time when there is an increasing demand for psychiatric services at the same time as a growing shortage of outpatient and inpatient programs, the need for peer specialists is particularly high.
Rightfully so, peer specialists are being recognized more and more for their value. In fact, multiple studies have been published indicating that they can do as good a job as case managers – if not better – in keeping their clients living with severe mental health challenges out of psychiatric hospitals.
“One of the problems with mental health is we’ve learned how to keep people ‘stable’ on their medications and get them out of the hospital,” Zahniser said. “But recovery is about having a life in the community. And peer services are often focused on those things: How do you get your life back?”
Knowing how to relate to someone experiencing a mental health issue can be difficult. But with appropriate training, everyone can begin to better identify what it looks like and what to do in different situations.
“There can be a lot of stumbling with a mental illness,” Yarborough noted, “and having a shoulder to lean on can make the journey much smoother.”
Like peer specialist training, Mental Health First Aid provides people with tools to ensure that there is a shoulder to lean on. Peer specialists are making huge strides in being the difference in their communities. #BeTheDifference in yours.